This book is clearly directed at me.
Now, I realize that Ruth Adam, writing in the late 1950s, a decade or so before I was born, may not have been aware that she was writing for me personally, but I'm convinced that it's true nevertheless. For surely few people reading this book could have contracted a more virulent strain of idealized fantasizing about life in the British countryside than the one I have.
And that's exactly what A House in the Country is about. In it, a group of six friends who have spent the dark years of war fantasizing together—while stuck in air raid shelters and food queues—about an idyllic life in a country house, seize, as soon as the war ends, on a seductive newspaper ad and rent an authentic old 33-room manor house in Kent—complete with four acres of lavish gardens and an elderly gardener seeking to return the house as far as possible to the functional bustle of its glory days.
Although the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography describes A House in the Country as a novel, it's certainly written in a memoir style and Adam uses her own name for the narrator. She even opens the book with the assurance that it's a true 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. Our old parents tried it. We wouldn't listen. "If you could only see her," we said.
Despite this dire warning, however, early on in the book there is plenty of food to feed my fantasy. There's an amazing description of the magnolia tree outside of one of the main room's enormous windows, bursting suddenly into bloom one day, and Adam is thrilled when the elderly gardener asks her what flowers she likes best so he can plan the greenhouse accordingly. Then there's this simple description of the space available in the house:
The south wing had the family rooms and the east wing the largest and grandest ones—the great dining-hall and the Best Guest above it, which looked out on to rolling lawns and a copper-beech tree. The New Wing, which was the north one, had servants' quarters. There were five main kitchens and four smaller service rooms. The west wing had sewing-rooms, preserving-rooms, and the lady's maid's room.
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.
At first, it's difficult to place this book in the context of Adam's other works, which tend to be rather serious and socially concerned. War on Saturday Week (1937) theorizes about the causes of war as a new one approached; I'm Not Complaining (1938, reprinted by Virago in the 1980s) is about a schoolteacher during the Depression; later novels like Fetch Her Away (1954) and Look Who's Talking (1960), deal with social work and disadvantaged children; and of course her final work was her wonderful history of the shifting roles and expectations of women, A Woman's Place 1910-75 (1975, available now from Persephone).
But gradually it becomes clear that some of the same concerns are present here, albeit treated more lightly. And this is what, for me, makes A House in the Country a cut above the numerous other humorous memoirs about people adapting to new homes, new lifestyles, new countries, etc.
One of my favorite examples is that Adam—as the one member of the group who does not work outside the home and who is therefore stuck with most of the housework—imagines she sees the ghost of a scullery maid, who would have lived virtually all of her life in the impractical, unpleasant, dungeon-like scullery:
I got a haunting idea that the house was paying me back for the generations of women who had slaved to keep it clean and warm. There was a dreadful little scullery, with a low stone sink which seemed to break your back in two when you used it. It had a dark window and a stone floor and plaster crumbling off the walls. In the old days there had been one little girl who spent her whole working life in it, standing washing dishes from six in the morning until eleven at night. If I went in there in the half-dark I used to think I saw her, bent over the sink. Seen from belowstairs, the manor looked quite different. I began to think our experiment did not deserve to succeed. 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 unfortunate scullery maid (I can't help but imagine Daisy from Downton Abbey) would have been essential to comfortable living in the manor house because the house, though beautiful and lushly comfortable to its "upstairs" residents, demanded slavery "downstairs":
If you have a house three times too big for you, it ought to be possible to shut up two-thirds of it. There was only one way we could have done this with the manor—by moving ourselves into the servants' quarters and staying there. No group of people could support themselves in any other part of the house. In our long struggle with the manor, she always defeated us because she had been built as a gentleman's residence. The north wing, holding the kitchens, was the engine-house of the great building. And the engine-house had been deliberately placed as far as possible from the gentry's quarters. If you wanted to keep a log-fire to warm yourself in the drawing-room, the most southerly point of the building, and also to keep in the boiler—the most northerly—you would not be able to sit by either. It would mean, instead, a continual journey to and fro—through the hall, through the great dining-hall, down the kitchen passage, and back again, round the other side of the square, along the west corridor, past the preserving-room and the store and the wine-cellars, though the double doors which led into the back hall, and through the second double-doors into the front hall again. ...
"[I]f only we could make the manor subscribe a little bit towards her own upkeep," we fretted.
But 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.
They quickly discover that they must have help, but equally quickly learn that no one in the village will come to the manor because they know of the herculean work involved. They find one "fast" young girl who promptly gets pregnant by a soldier and leaves them, then another who seems saintly until she goes after the cook with a knife. When they are finally able to find a pair of girls who work well together, Adam describes their painstaking efforts to offer the girls a 40-hour work week with overtime for any extra hours. When those girls reluctantly leave, they find a live-in couple, the Williamses, who are hardworking and efficient, and transform life at the manor until their own lives become a little too much like a "twentieth-century Wuthering Heights."
And other problems arise too. Over time, the friendships forged in the hardships of war begin to fade, and members of the initial group depart, leaving a devastating gap in their financial resources. They attempt to fill this gap, hilariously, by selling vegetables and flowers from the garden, raising pigs (and curing the resulting bacon), and, finally, taking in holiday guests. One of the guests, a young Frenchwoman who had been in the Maquis during the war, tells them (with the children present) a harrowing story of brutally eliminating a collaborator. Another, and my favorite (surely not for any similarities between myself and her...) is a Swedish Anglophile:
She arrived at the manor, bewildered by walking into her dream at last, on the very morning when the magnolia burst into bloom. With her, we had no need to put on a painstaking act of the British Home Shown to Foreign Tourists. She assumed that everything we did was wonderful, and so we could afford to be ourselves.
The first evening it was chilly and Mollie lit the kindling under the logs in the hall. We pulled up the chairs and turned to her. A sweet smile broke over her face.
"So you really do it?"
We were startled.
"It says in the books that when the English light one of their open fires they pull the chairs up and sit in a half-circle round it. I always wondered if that was correct."
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."
Absolutely none of this, of course, reminds me in the slightest of my own first, long-awaited visit to England last year. I'm sure I was much more stoical and less idealizing. (Or not.)
But despite their inevitable ultimate failure, they keep struggling to make ends meet and maintain the manor:
But we could not make ends meet. However much we tried to eliminate luxuries, we were paying for the most expensive luxury of all—privacy, space—our own piece of land. We might eat boiled cod and parsnips, and wear ragged clothes. But we woke, between our patched sheets, in large lofty rooms, with the sun blazing through great mullioned windows. On the wide grass stretches, enclosed from the road by ancient trees, our own footprints would be the only ones in the dew. And our children's life was stripped of everything cheap and harmful and full of everything that is right for childhood. We were willing to do without everything else; but even so we could not pay for these things.
In the end, it takes a personal tragedy to put a final end to their fantasy of country life (and they do finally discover what happened to the poor old parson who had tried to live in the house in the 1870s), but in the meantime the reader is treated to a constantly entertaining tale full of fascinating detail about life in the immediate aftermath of the war (and some vivid flashbacks to the war itself), and about the realities of life in the kind of house most of us will only experience via "Downton Abbey" or "Upstairs, Downstairs."
By the way, for anyone keeping track, there is yet another example here of a baby being left outside to sleep:
Howard built a wire-netting cage, with a gate in it, for the baby's pram, so that he could lie anywhere in the garden without fear of marauding cats or snakes.
I mentioned recently that Rachel Ferguson's A Footman for the Peacock was one of the books that made me want to start a blog, the purpose of which would be to share my pleasure in books that are little known and little read but which might bring pleasure to other readers too. This is another such book.
* * * * *
On a side note, for those interested in the many book clubs that seem to have thrived at mid-century, my copy of A House in the Country is a low-cost edition created for the Country Book Club, of which I had never previously heard. On the back dust cover is a selection of "CBC Past Choices." I've never heard of any of them either, though some could be of interest:
For anyone out there who's as obsessive as I am, here are the front flap (who doesn't love free books?):
and the back flap (all told, I think "£2 0s 6d" is a fair price for six books—I recommend joining!):
Has anyone out there come across this book club before?