Only the very hardest of hearts could fail to be moved by this beautifully wrought and utterly poignant account of a life damaged by war and by circumstance.
It is the story of Helen, who looks back at her earlier life when she is in her forties.
Her childhood was, in many ways, idyllic; with her time divided between the London home of her grandmother and Yearsley, the beautiful Georgian manor house in the country that was home to her cousin Delia, Delia’s husband, John, and their two sons, Guy and Hugo.
The children’s life in the country was happy and secure; they had the freedom to roam through gardens, meadows and woods; and there was one particular tree that they always returned to, naming it ‘The Happy Tree.’
The two boys had much in common, but their natures were quite different – Guy was bright and confident, while Hugh was quiet and sensitive. Helen and Hugh were particularly close; and as they grew up, it became clear that their feelings were much deeper than those of siblings. Neither of then knew quite what they should do, or how to speak of what they knew, and so they just went on with life and found themselves pulled in different directions.
The boys went away to school and then they went up to Oxford, while Helen was educated at home, with the unspoken assumption that she would remain there until she married and had a home of her own.
She enjoyed visiting Guy and Hugh, in Oxford at first and then in London. She was drawn onto their sophisticated and intellectual circle of friends; but there was still a distance between her and Hugh. That troubled her, and as neither of them had either the wish or the confidence to speak or act, she drifted into a relationship with a man on the fringes of their circle.
Walter Sebright was an earnest and serious-minded academic, it was clear that he adored Helen, and she accepted his proposal because she knew that and because she didn’t quite know how to say no, and could only hope that his love for her would allow her fondness for him to grow into something much deeper.
The match left her family and friends both surprised and disappointed, but because Helen didn’t share her true feeling with anyone, all any of them could do was assume that it was what she wanted, and that she saw things in her fiance that they did not.
Helen was to find that Walter’s outlook on life was quite unlike that of her family and friends, and that his less wealthy, middle-class upbringing made him disapproving of the easy path through life her cousins and the lack of thought they gave to their good fortune.
When war broke out, Helen had to watch her cousins and friends go off to fight, while her husband stayed home, because he was medically unfit and carrying out work that was important to the war effort. She struggled with childcare and with housework, with no help, because even when finances allowed there were no domestic servants to be had. Helen was totally unequipped for the life she had to live, she struggled with the consequences of the wrong decisions she had made, and as news of casualties and deaths arrived she grieved for the people she had loved and for the world that she had loved and that she knew could never be the same again.
The writing in this book is so honest and so insightful that Helen’s feelings and experiences were palpable, and though there were times when I felt so sad for her that it was difficult to read I couldn’t look away.
And this is all that has happened. It does not seem very much…I was happy when I was a child, and I married the wrong person, and someone I loved dearly was killed in the war…that is all. And all those things must be true of thousands of people.
Her story speaks profoundly for the generation of women who lived through the Great War, and it does more besides.
It made me think how our family situation can affect us for the whole of our lives. Helen’s father died when she was very young and her mother left her in her grandmother’s care while she moved to America to pursue her career. Had Helen’s mother been close at hand maybe she would have questioned her engagement in a way that Cousin Delia didn’t feel she could. And had she been raised to think that she might have higher education, that she might have a career or a purpose of her own, that being a wife and a mother need not be everything, what a difference that could have made.
It made me realise that no matter what our circumstance our, lives can be thrown off course by things that we can’t control, leaving hopes and dreams shattered, and leaving lives adrift.
It made me realise that it is so important to speak and communicate honestly.
All this is the story of one life, told in a voice that always rings true.