HELEN ASHTON, The Half-Crown House (1956)
|Image courtesy of Jerri Chase|
I've had this book lying around for a year or more, the remains of one of my earlier Big Book Sale excursions. I don't know why I hadn't picked it up before, as it clearly had loads of potential, but somehow I kept pushing it aside for something else.
I'm glad I finally got round to it, however, as I found it completely addictive. It takes place all in the course of one day, which happens to be the final Saturday of the year on which the house and gardens of a once-prestigious family, the Hornbeams, are open to the public. These visits have been a last-ditch effort to raise enough money to keep the crumbling house functioning for one more year. It's also the day on which an American military man steps up his efforts to win the heart of Henrietta Hornbeam, the only survivor of the family's current generation, and on which Henrietta has promised to entertain some family friends to tea. And, it's the day on which her nephew, son of her dead twin brother and the heir to the estate, is brought by her brother's widow to make his home with the family and be sent to a public school.
Quite an eventful day. But the contemporary action—such as it is—takes a definite backseat to the history and furnishings of the house itself. I don't even think of myself as particularly fascinated by home décor, but I found myself absolutely gobbling up the extended descriptions of the rooms and the ruins of the Hornbeams' once-lavish possessions. And the stories told by Henrietta and her cousin Charles—who lost an eye and one arm in the war but is still more useful than most of the family's remaining staff—along with the imperious and now bedridden Lady Hornbeam's class-conscious secretary, as they show visitors around the rooms, stories which include a queen's visit and numerous family tragedies, are great fun as well. The family is basically required to live submerged in the past, and the sense of decay and claustrophobia is palpable (but also entertaining).
|Image courtesy of |
I was pretty sure, by the time I got to the following description on page 17—about the elderly nanny perusing the nursery before the young heir's arrival—that I was going to quite enjoy The Half-Crown House:
Generations of Hornbeam children had used the room in the nursery tower. The faded roses and figures of a Kate Greenaway wallpaper scarcely showed any longer between the framed Christmas supplements which covered the walls, Bubbles, Cherry Ripe and Miss Muffet. The dappled tail-less rocking horse, which his father and grandfather had ridden upon, waited for Victor by the window; the intricate fantasies of the faded scrap-screen, which his great-aunt had made in the seventies, kept off the draught from an ill-fitting door. His great-grandmother's dolls' house stood by the wall, foursquare and Palladian, with pediment and portico, made by the estate carpenter in imitation of Wilchester Castle, demolished these ten years. All its bright windows glittered; Nanny had rubbed them up faithfully, because even a boy ought to be amused by this copy of an ancestral house. The mantelpiece held children's treasures, brought back from seaside holidays, fifteen, twenty, thirty years ago; the glass lighthouse striped with coloured sand from Alum Bay, the paper-weight with the view of the Brighton Pavilion underneath, the glass ball waiting for Victor to shake up the snowstorm inside, the ship-in-a-bottle made by Nanny's sailor brother, the cracked Staffordshire jug with the heads of Admiral Nelson and Captain Hardy on its bulging sides. In the big toy-cupboard the child would find his father's toy fort and boxes of soldiers, the model theatre, the red-and-white bricks, the maps and puzzles with the pieces missing, the boats, spades and buckets, the small bats and cricket-stumps, the toy tricycle with one pedal gone. Nanny did hope that some of this junk would please him.
It's possible that some readers who don't fetishize old houses with rich, odd histories might find that Ashton's novel is focused a bit too much on the house and a bit too little on the characters. Fair warning of that. But for fans of, for example, Ruby Ferguson's Lady Rose and Mrs. Memmary, also about a house that's seen better days, then The Half-Crown House is likely not to be missed.
And one more element that I found wonderful about the book is the way it grounds itself solidly in the postwar world. Although published eleven years after the end of World War II, The Half-Crown House is permeated with the after-effects of the war—class shifts, food difficulties, taxation, and, most significant of all, the injuries and losses still felt by those left behind. For those interested in that postwar austerity mood in their novels, this is also a great choice.
|Image courtesy of Jerri Chase|
I have to give an enthusiastic thank you to Jerri Chase, who provided images of her copy of this book, complete with a lovely dustjacket, and granted her permission for me to use them here. (She may have nearly forgotten that she provided them now, as it's taken me nearly a year to use them, but my thanks is no less warm for that.) The dustjacket also includes a charming photo of Ashton and two paragraphs of author bio. Ashton joins the expanding group of women on my Overwhelming List who studied medicine, which one might have suspected from the fact that several of her books—including Doctor Serocold (1930), Hornets' Nest (1935), and Yeoman's Hospital (1944)—center around the medical profession.
I also note that the author bio says only that the apartment she and her husband lived in was "destroyed by fire" in 1941. According to Persephone's Helen Ashton page, however, it was destroyed in the Blitz. Both statements may be true, of course, but it's interesting that the publishers of The Half-Crown House chose to mention the destruction but not its direct cause.
Now it's high time I get around to Ashton's one Persephone reprint, Bricks and Mortar, which undoubtedly many of you have already read. It just moved quite a bit further up my TBR list. And then there's her novel about the early years of World War II, Tadpole Hall...
WINIFRED DUKE, Dirge for a Dead Witch (1949)
I wrote about my first encounter with Winifred Duke a little over a year and a half ago, after happening upon a copy of The Dancing of the Fox in a Victoria second-hand bookshop. It was one of my best and most intriguing unexpected book finds of recent years, and I vowed at the time to explore Duke's fiction a bit further. In view of the usual amount of time it takes me to get around to doing anything I say I'm going to do, for me to have read a second Duke title in just over a year and a half is not all that bad…
So little information about Duke or her books is available online that I wound up, a few months ago, just grabbing the most affordable book I could find on Abe Books with an intriguing title and an intact dustjacket. I had no idea what I was getting. While Dancing was a sort of crime novel—but not so much a who-done-it as a what-were-the-aftereffects-of-its-having-been-done—Dirge for a Dead Witch is historical drama, though certainly still with a crime element in the form of a witchhunt and its long-lingering repercussions.
The present day of the novel is the late 18th century, with a long middle section flashing back to more than a century before. In the present day, Mr. Raeburn, a new clergyman in the village of Drumbannock is writing a book on folklore, including witches, and takes an interest in the tale of Anne Chalmers, who was hounded by the villagers a century before and who then mysteriously vanished without a trace. The flashback tells Anne's story, though it is only when we return to the novel's present, that we discover its final ending.
As I would have expected from my earlier experience of Duke's work, Dirge is highly atmospheric and eminently readable. Here's a snippet from page 12, telling of Mr. Raeburn's mother's reactions to their new abode:
Mrs. Raeburn followed. Her teeth were chattering. Ridiculous! The evening was so close, so enervating, that she had felt compelled to loosen her cloak, and her bonnet pressed heavily on her moist temples. Yet here a chill, dank atmosphere enwrapped everything and seeped to her very bones. She trod past the kirk, towering, sinister and forbidding, amongst its neighbouring gravestones. It was not an agreeable reflection that she must look out upon it every day. Behind the bald solid block it made she discerned a house. There was no garden, no approach, except a little narrow path of earth, and beyond—Those great trees looked highly unwholesome. What a dark, awe-inspiring place! Hers was a comfortable, unimaginative mind happed in a healthy body, but the mere proximity of the den caused her to think of ghosts and bogles, of old, blood-curdling superstitions and eerie tales once heard and easily forgotten. Never, never, even in the daytime, she told herself wildly, could she summon up courage to enter the uncanny place. Would it be possible to have those rank, evil-looking trees cut down? If they proved to be on glebeland and under the jurisdiction of the minister this must be done. In their ugly closeness might breed fevers, dark, malignant things. Already she saw in this spot menace, fear, the unknown. Her heart yearned for Dumfries, its lights, its kindly folk, its security and certainty. Here she felt threatened by she knew not what.
Pretty effective stuff (unless you happen to live alone between a cemetery and a dark forest, I suppose). And there are also fascinating characters who have real depth and seem—even when they're completely unpleasant—to live and breathe. As would also be expected, the scenes portraying the villagers' growing suspicions of witchcraft and the eventual arrest and trial of Anne—who seems to have nothing against her except her beauty and her status as a stranger in the village—are harrowing and sad, and Duke dissects the villagers' suspicions and fears quite convincingly.
Ultimately, I might have to admit that the outcome of the novel felt a bit anti-climactic, but I think this is because it was all done so well that it seemed to be leading up to something bigger and more dramatic. Though the fact that it remains understated and suggestive rather than over-the-top and obvious seems to be in keeping with Duke's style, and there are so many ways in which over-the-top eerie stories can go awry and so many ways that merely suggested horror can be more effective, that some readers might see this as a strength in itself.
I also have to note that much of the dialogue—of which there is a lot—is in Scots dialect. This was interesting, and I have to admit I was surprised at the extent to which I got used to it after a while—rather like reading Shakespeare—but it did slow the flow of the novel a bit. But again, some readers might particularly enjoy this.
But those minor quibbles aside, Duke's writing and her perspective on these events made Dirge well worth reading, and I do recommend it for fans of historical fiction and of things that go bump in the night. I'm glad I've now sampled one of Duke's non-mysteries, and I'm hoping also to sample one or two more of her books in the near future, if the Interlibrary Loan team at the SF Public Library is able to manage it. She is simply too interesting to be as completely obscure as she is. Perhaps one should be The Needful Journey, described on the back flap of Dirge?
It's odd that virtually none of Duke's books seem to have ever been reprinted, despite the fact that, according to the cover of Dirge, her earlier novel Death and His Sweetheart had apparently been a veritable bestseller (being, at the time Dirge appeared, in its "38th thousand"), and despite the fact that crime fiction seems to be one of the most eagerly collected and reprinted genres of fiction from the early to mid 20th century.
I shall have to do what I can to rectify that. Hopefully in less than another year and a half…
[And of course, I couldn't resist sharing the dustjacket with you, especially since no one else ever talks about this author. You know, too, how much I enjoy publishers' book lists on the backs of books, and this one is no exception. Alas, I didn't find any new authors for my Overwhelming List, but there were new names for my phantom Overwhelming List US. Theda Kenyon (1894-1997) was an American novelist and poet who apparently once shared the stage at a speaking gig with Edwin Arlington Robinson and Robert Frost, though she appears to be primarily remembered now for a book called Witches Still Live: A Study of the Black Art Today (1929), which makes her a slightly ironic presence on the back of Duke's book. Lenore Glen Offord (1905-1991) was an Edgar Award-winning American mystery novelist who, incidentally, lived on Russian Hill in San Francisco, and Ann Chidester was also American, though information about her and her books is sparse. Ethel Mannin, Eileen Bigland, and Margaret Archer are all already represented on my list.]