It was a plain hardback book without a dust jacket, sitting on a shelf waiting to catch somebody’s eye. Many people would have passed it by but I recognised the name of an author who has been published by both Virago and Persephone. It had a title that I was sure I had read about, and that suggested the book might well be my kind of book.
Whether it is fact or fiction isn’t entirely clear, but the author’s words and my reading makes me think that it is fiction lightly fictionalised, to smooth rough edges and make it work as a story.
‘This is a cautionary tale, and true.
Never fall in love with a house. The one we fell in love with wasn’t even ours. If she had been, she would have ruined us just the same. We found out some things about her afterwards, among them what she did to that poor old parson, back in the eighteen-seventies. If we had found them out earlier… ? It wouldn’t have made any difference. We were in that maudlin state when reasonable argument is quite useless.’
It began during the war as a group of Londoners, family and friends, spun stories of the home they would love to have when peace finally came.
‘It must be one of those houses that’s been built, bit by bit. over hundred of years.’
‘It must have great windows that let all the sunlight in’
‘It ought to have a river running through the garden.’
‘There’ll be three or four kitchens, with red-flagged floors and hams hanging from the ceiling and we shan’t have to live in any of them.’
‘It must stand alone. Not another house within half a mile, at the very least. There must be miles and miles of green fields, washing right up to its garden walls.’
They hadn’t thought that it would ever be a reality, but not long after the war one of them saw an advertisement in the personal column of The Times that sounded just like their house.
When they thought about it, they realised that if they pooled their resources the dream could become a reality; and when they went down to see the house they agreed that it must.
‘They say that when a stranger’s face seems familiar, it is because it is like a forgotten face of your childhood. I don’t know if that is true about people. But I know it is about houses. When I stood for the first time in the hall of the manor, it was not strange to me. It was the house I had promised to have, so that my mother could come and stay in it.’
The house was everything they had hoped it would be, but of course there were practicalities and problems that they hadn’t considered. In the post-war world the house had come relatively cheaply because many people had realised that there were more comfortable ways to live. War-time regulations still on place put limits on the refurbishment of the property, and the age where people either were or had household staff was over.
There were wonderful tales told as maids came and went. One girl arrived with a suitor in the forces, went out in clothes she took from the wardrobe of one of the household and left expecting a baby; another had a husband who pilfered money from the box by the telephone; and another seemed perfect until she went for the cook with a knife. Finally they found two girls who worked happily and effectively together, and later they employed a married couple who were hardworking but possibly a little too down-to-earth ….
Luckily the group was blessed with a gardener cum handyman who loved the house and knew how everything worked and how to keep the wheels running smoothly.
The house itself was a joy
‘Every bedroom had a dressing-room. We all became remarkably tidy. You wouldn’t have known our bedrooms as belonging to the same people who had once had coats flung on the bed and overflowing suitcases on all the chairs. The house imposed order upon us, whether we liked it or not. When you have thirty-three rooms, you feel obliged to keep something in each one, and the possessions which had filled the little suburban house to bursting-point now vanished quietly into the depths of the manor.’
Most of the management of the household fell onto the shoulders of the author, because she was the only one who didn’t go out to work and because she and her husband – who worked for the BBC – were the only ones who had brought children. She coped wonderfully, with the people, with the kitchens, and with everything else that came with running a manor house and grounds.
She loved it, but she saw it clear-sightedly.
‘She was an aristocratic lady on our hands. All ideas for making her work for a living were wrecked on the fact that she was born to be served and not to serve.’
Her tone and her storytelling were wonderful. She caught the changing times perfectly, and she wove in some astute social commentary.
‘The gracious life in the front wing, after all, depended entirely upon service in the back wing, and it didn’t seem a justifiable way of living.’
The story is very focused on the house and the experience. I couldn’t tell you much at all about her children, the other members of the household, or what happened before or after. That served the book well, and the account of life in the house – the stories that could be told and the small details that could be recalled – were so engaging and so well drawn that I only thought about that when I put the book down.
Inevitably, over a period of time, the household changed. One man grew tired of commuting, and of living with other people’s children. One woman, who had been romantically involved with some-one else in the household, married someone who definitely didn’t one to move in. Another man was sent to work overseas.
That meant that the household finances were terribly stretched. Sub-letting part of the property was an unhappy experience, but providing lodgings for holiday-makers was much more successful and provided some lovely stories.
‘She loved to hear someone tell a long, painstakingly funny story brought back from the village pub. She never could follow the story. It was the reception she waited for.
“So the English really do laugh out loud when friends are together,” she would say contentedly.
We supplied her with ‘The Edwardians’ to read in the evenings, explaining the phrases to her when she got stuck. Then we sent her off, with a packet of sandwiches to spend the day at Knole, telling her it was Chevron House, in which the book was set. We awaited her return with sympathetic interest. She came in and looked at us speechlessly.
“It’s too much,” she said at last. “It was too beautiful, and too large. I’m going straight to bed.” ‘
The author continued to love the house – her bond deepened when her fourth child was born there – but in the end she had to acknowledge that the workload was too great and the finances could not be managed.
She was philosophical.
‘In April when we bought daffodils off a street- barrow and say to each other when we go home, ” I suppose the magnolia must be out,” we always add, “Thank goodness someone else has got to sweep up the fallen petals.” ‘
I am so pleased that I found this book, and it would be lovely if it could be reissued; because I can think of many other people who would love it too.