Hostages to Fortune by Elizabeth Cambridge (1933)

There are many different kinds of novel out there in the world, and of course that it how it should be; because people read for different reasons, because we all live different lives and so well all look for different things when we read.

That means that it is very easy for quiet books to get lost in the crowd, and it means that it is a great joy to those of us who love such books when somebody – be it a big publisher, a small press, or an individual whose voice is heard – draws attention to a quiet book worthy of being raised above that crowd.

‘Hostages to Fortune’ is one of those books, wisely rescued by the lovely Persephone Books, and it does some of the things I love most in a quiet book.

It speaks to my sense of wonder that there are so many people in the world and that each and every one of them has a story of their own that might be told.

It illuminates lives lived at a particular time, at a particular point in history so very well that I really do feel that these fictional characters lived and breathed, and that I have come understand how their lives were for them without ever intruding at all.

And it does all of this, and more, quite beautifully.

If it was a painting, I would say that it was a picture that at first seemed unremarkable, and yet it drew you right in, and you found something new to appreciate every time you looked at it.

The story begins in 1915, with a young woman named Catherine, who is fairly newly married and whose husband William is away at the war. She is expecting a child,  she gives birth to a girl, and she names her Audrey.

“She opened her eyes. Nurse was standing over her, the baby held upright against her shoulder, like the bambino on a Della Robbia Plaque.

Catherine stared. So that was her baby. Baby? Babies were sleepy amorphous, unconvincing and ugly. This creature was not amorphous, it was not even ugly. It stared at life with bright unwinking eyes. Its underlip was thrust out tremulous indignant.

‘My word’ Catherine thought ‘that’s not a baby. It’s a person.’ “

William came home two years later, invalided out of the army, and Catherine quickly realised that the war had changed him irrevocably. He decided to buy a medical practice in an Oxfordshire village, and to move his family from their cottage in Cornwall to the house that came with that practice. Catherine was daunted by the size of the house, and the role that she was called on to play, but she was quickly caught up in her new life.

Endpapers of the Persephone Books edition of ‘Hostages to Fortune’

There is no plot as such, but the book follows the lives of Catherine and her family until the early 1930s, in it is utterly absorbing. There was so much that said to me that I was reading about real lives that had been lived, and although I was reading about lives lived a very long time ago there was so much about the feeling and concerns of the people I was reading about that was both timeless and universal.

When the story begins her husband and her hopes of being a writer dominate Catherine’s life, but when she becomes a mother – of three children, as Audrey is followed first by Adam and then by Bill – they take up all of her time and thoughts. She finds that they bring her happiness, puzzlement and worry, and I understood it all wonderfully well. Each child was beautifully and distinctively drawn, and I think that this might be the finest account of children and their family life that I have ever read.

I appreciated the way that the lives of Catherine’s family were contrasted with the very different lives of her elder sister Violet’s family, casting a different light upon the characters and their age; and I loved the way that the story subtly shifted to show the different natures and concerns of all of those children.

I was equally impressed – maybe even more impressed – by the portrayal of Catherine and William’s marriage.

His role as the local doctor could be difficult and demanding, as was her role, running the family home and caring for three young children. Their relationship was often strained, and there were times when they didn’t particularly like one another, and when they questioned to themselves why ever  they had chosen to marry, but they never quite lost the sense that they were partners, and they shared the same loves  and the same values. In time they each came to appreciate what the other had done for them, for their children, and for their future, and that strengthened their marriage.

 “They had come to admire each other.  They had both hated their jobs, but they had stuck to them until miraculously, they had come not only to like them, but to be unable to do without them.  By the same process they had come to really need and like each other; somehow a real friendship a real need for each other had grown up behind their differences and disappointments.”

There are many details of relationships of characters and of moments in lives lived in this book. They have blurred a little, I know that they will come back to me when I pick the book up again, but now I am happy considering the impression that they have left behind them.

A picture of a family that is finely drawn and utterly real.

 

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