Helbeck of Bannisdale by Mrs Humphrey Ward (1898)

Bannisdale was an old family home in the Lake District, a part of the world that the author knew well and brought to life with lovely and evocative prose.

“It was an old and weather-beaten house, of a singular character and dignity; yet not large. It was built of grey stone, covered with a rough-cast, so tempered by age to the colour and surface of the stone, that the many patches where it had dropped away produced hardly any disfiguring effect. The rugged “pele” tower, origin and source of all the rest, was now grouped with the gables and projections, the broad casemented windows, and deep doorways of a Tudor manor-house. But the whole structure seemed still to lean upon and draw towards the tower; and it was the tower which gave accent to a general expression of austerity, depending perhaps on the plain simplicity of all the approaches and immediate neighbourhood of the house. For in front of it were neither flowers nor shrubs—only wide stretches of plain turf and gravel; while behind it, beyond some thin intervening trees, rose a grey limestone fell, into which the house seemed to withdraw itself, as into the rock, “whence it was hewn.” 

The story begins on a chilly March day, late in the nineteen century. Alan Helbeck has invited his newly-widowed sister, Augustina, and her stepdaughter, Laura, to live with him at Bannisdale. They had been estranged for many years, because he was a devout Catholic and his sister had abandoned her faith to marry an atheist scholar. She was happy that the estrangement was over, that she was home again, but she found that the house and the estate were much changed. The estate was diminished and  the house was cold and bare, because her brother has sold land and  valuables to support the Catholic orphanages that Jesuit priests had urged him to establish.

Alan was happy with that, and he would have followed his vocation and become a priest had he not been heir to the family fortune and responsibilities; but Laura was horrified. Like her father, she had no faith, but she saw the value of beauty and history, and she couldn’t understand why he didn’t appreciate those things.

Laura found the asceticism of the household oppressive, but she stayed at Bannisdale because she loved her stepmother and she knew that she needed her. She stayed even when Augustina reverted to Catholicism. The contrast between the two women, one who thinks for herself and one who follows the lead of her male protector, is striking.

At first Laura dislikes Alan and finds him very cold, but in time she comes to appreciate his thoughtfulness towards to her and her stepmother, and to appreciate the beauty of his chapel and the value of the good works he does; though her dislike of his faith and the priests who expect so much from him is unwavering. He is captivated by the spirited young woman, loving her openness and honesty, but worrying about her lack of faith.

Over times their feelings strengthen, and events conspire to make them declare their love.

I loved that this book didn’t lead to a marriage at the very end, that a proposal came a little before the story was half over, and that the rest of the book explored the difficulty of marriage between two people whose beliefs were fundamentally different.

It did that with a wonderful empathy towards all of the characters and their different feelings. I knew that the author’s own feelings chimed with Laura’s but she didn’t let that unbalance the story, and she didn’t let the ideas that she was exploring to unbalance the story that she had to tell.

The plot was well constructed and the writing was lovely. It had both academic and emotional intelligence, it evoked the time and the place beautifully, and it always placed the characters, their lives and relationships, at the centre of things.

Laura was a marvellous heroine; she was a ‘new woman’ with wonderful potential, but she was also young and grieving for her beloved father, and terribly torn between the ways he had taught her and the ways of the man she had come to love deeply.

I felt for her as she escaped to visit friends in London, and as she was drawn back to Bannisdale to nurse her dying stepmother ….

It was only at the very end of the story that things went a little awry.  It was dramatic, it was emotional, but I wasn’t as convinced by the final act as I had been by the rest of the story.

I think that maybe that was inevitable, because a story has to have a resolution and the problem that the author set out could never be resolved.

That was my only issue, because I loved what the author had to say and I loved the way that she said it.

Victoria by Knut Hamsun (1898)

This is a very slim novel, and it tells a story that had been told a great many times over the years – the story of young lovers from different classes, pulled together by love but pulled in different directions by life – but it is so well told and so distinctive that I found it irresistible.

Vitoria and Johannes had always known each other. She was daughter of a wealthy landowner, he was the son of a miller, and their paths crossed whenever Victoria’s family visited their country estate. Johannes would always be called to row the children of the family to the island where they could run, explore, do whatever they wanted.

Johannes wanted to join in their adventures. There were so many things that he could show them in the country side that he loved and knew so well. But they didn’t want him; he was only there to row and to mind the boat. He tried, but every time he tried the boys knocked him back, and so he began to write stories in his head; stories where he was the hero, he saved them from disaster, he won the heart of Victoria.

VictoriaHe knew that Victoria wanted him to be part of the group but that she had to give way to the boys. She didn’t say anything, of course she couldn’t say anything, but he could see it in her eyes and in her demeanour.

Johannes was sent to school in the city and then he only saw Victoria when he came home in the summer, but his love for her never faded.

He loved her, but he could never be sure that she loved him. He continued to write to express his feelings, and in time he would become a very successful author.

Johannes and Victoria met again, and when they spoke they learned that they loved each other.

But their situation was complicated. Victoria’s family’s fortune had faded, and her parent’s future depended on her making an advantageous match.

Would there be a happy ending.

Sometimes I thought yes, and sometimes I thought no.

The love story is beautifully wrought; it rises and it falls and it catches every emotion of these star-crossed lovers quite beautifully. There were times when it felt a little like a fairy story but there were times when it felt wonderfully and painfully real. I saw the influence of older stories in some lovely touches, and there were also touches that made me think of much more modern stories.

The stories that Johannes wrote caught his emotions, and there were times when I wondered which was the story and which – if any – was the reality.

In the end there could be no doubt. For a moment the story faltered, but the ending found the magic that had illuminated this little book again.

I don’t know about the author to put this book into context. I can just say that it is a very readable book, that what is distilled into this novel many authors would have made into a much bigger book, and that I liked it very much.