We recently chatted about how titles can influence the way in which we read a novel – I loved all of your contributions, and encourage anyone who hasn’t to read the comments to this post, all fascinating. Well, the book I want to write about tonight has a title that is somehow both very appealing and entirely unrevealing: A House in the Country (1944 – set in 1942) by Jocelyn Playfair. It was the second Persephone book that I started during Persephone Reading Weekend, but didn’t finish until a little while later. It had been on my shelf for years; I loved the gentle, rural title, but knew nothing whatsoever about its contents.
Having read it, I can now say that my expectations were wildly misplaced – and yet I loved the novel, for reasons quite different from those anticipated. A House in the Country is not a cosy paean to countryside ways, but a deep, moving, and surprisingly controversial novel.
Cressida Chance (wonderful name) lives in the house of the title, and has started taking paying guests. The idea of paying guests completely foreign now, but it must have been an ingenious way for people to get a bit of extra money without demeaning themselves – and to provide houses for those who needed them during war. If someone were to make a list of things which would attract me to a novel, having big old houses at their centre would definitely make the list. Here’s Cressida’s, from the viewpoint of John Greenacre, who is arriving to be one of the said paying guests:
He half turned away from the view of the house. As he did so the sun caught every pane in the high, evenly spaced windows of the lovely front and spread warmth over the old red bricks so that the house glowed like a jewel against the dark trees behind.
I’m rather captivated, don’t know about you. But the most captivating thing about the novel is Cressida herself. She is a wonderful heroine, and I’m not quite sure how to put her personality into words. She is sensible but not dull; strong-feeling but not excessively passionate; loving but neither dependent nor demanding; caring but not sentimental. She seems to have just enough of all virtues to be attractive, and not enough to become irritating. Her feet are certainly made of clay. She is a remarkable creation.
Cressida is undoubtedly the beacon of Playfair’s novel. Against her fully-realised, exquisitely drawn character, it did feel as though others rather faded into one another. With the exception of Tori, that is – ‘a little beetle of a man’ from war-torn Europe, who has seen and suffered much. Other than him, the rest of the cast didn’t really come alive, and seemed mostly there to provide occasional colour and interest, rather than pathos. But Playfair doesn’t really need more than her main players to make an impression.
I tell a lie, Miss Ambleside is a great addition to the mix. Her type is familiar, and the target of much delicious caustic humor in novels of the period. Miss Ambleside is one of those people who constantly feel martyred, incapable of seeing how insignificant their sufferings are:
Miss Ambleside’s life in London had never been far from the normal. During the blitz she had done a great deal of visiting in the country. And now Miss Ambleside’s gloom drove her to consider the possible advantages of living in London again. One could open one’s house in the country, but then there would be the trouble of servants. It was all very difficult and trying. Perhaps dear Cressida would keep one a little longer, until one could see which way things were going. But in that case one would lose one’s hair appointment, and getting another was always problematical. There were difficulties, it seemed, whichever course one decided upon.
Those of you who don’t fancy sizable chunks of quotation, look away now – because what I find most fascinating about novels from this period is their perspective on the war. Plenty of historical novels try and deduce this from a distance, but there is nothing quite like reading the views which were expressed there and then, whether in fact or fiction. So here are another couple of excerpts, the first from Cressida’s viewpoint, and the second from a man in active service, returning to England. They offer competing, but novelistically equally valid, perspectives on the effects of war at home – and demonstrate Playfair’s sophistication. She hasn’t got simply one view to hammer home.
People talked a lot about the various hells of war; the dust and heat in the desert, the steam and exhaustion of the tropics, the ice terror of the sea, the nerve-shattering clash of actual battle anywhere. But there was another sort of hell; the hell of impatience. Living in England, surrounded by normal people, living near-normal lives, trying to do a job that seemed to have no end and no purpose, a life of exercises and long journeys in lorries from one English village to another, without even an air raid to give reality to what felt like merely an irritating and prolonged succession of manoeuvres. Much better, she thought, to be right away from England, where the spectre of pre-war life was not always hovering in the background, constantly reminding one of normality, making it impossible to cut oneself off and become really a part of the machine humanity had to become in order to fight this latest form of war.
Charles could not have said in so many words what it was he had expected to find in England. Perhaps he had not quite imagined that the entire countryside would be a blackened ruin, that people would be picking their way nervously between yawning bomb craters and darting into underground holes as soon as daylight began to fade. Perhaps he had not quite expected to see on every face the hard lines of heroism and stark, but controlled, fear. But England had been for three years described in terms of heroism, in outsize headlines. It had been loudly called the war-torn, the noble, the indomitable, the last outpost of civilisation. Surely it was natural to suppose that all this hyperbole must have a visible cause. But it was certainly difficult to detect in the stolid, well-fed faces of the English people any sign of undue heroism, or any indication that they were making a brave struggle to support life on insufficient food and unremitting hard labour under the constant fear of death. Here and there, it was true, there were ruined and burnt-out buildings. But there were always burnt-out buildings to be seen from railway-trains, and these ruins looked as if they had quite gently decayed under the slow wear of time rather than been blasted asunder with savage violence in a few seconds. Even the thousands of broken windows merely suggested small boys with stones rather than death-dealing splinters of steel and iron.
Decades of talking about the war, and people’s stoicism, and the bravery of the home front has built up a picture for those of us not alive then. And, of course, it has much truth to it. But a passage like that I’ve just typed seems, to me, so much more vivid and truthful – a fascinating angle on expectation, reality, and wartime confusion.
What is difficult to remember, when reading novels of this period, is that neither author nor reader knew who would win the war. Published in 1944, it was still possible (or at least not impossible) that England would be occupied by the Nazis. Propaganda of the Brave British Soldier was doubtless still indefatigable. And this makes Playfair all the more brave in her extremely honest, often critical discussions of warfare. Characters suggest that war is futile; that few soldiers know why they are fighting, and that ideals are far below blind obedience, when it comes to motive.
We are always being told the German people don’t want war, the English don’t want war; no one wants war. And yet we have war. We have war because we have been herded, they’ve been formed into masses, they’ve been taught to obey without question, to fight and die without hesitation. But men have not been taught to take the advice Christ gave them when He said “Know thyself.”One can only imagine what a brave stance this was to offer in 1944.
A House in the Country is not without its faults. The major one is that which so many ’20s-’40s novels stumble into, and is certainly seen in more than one Persephone and Virago title (much as we love ’em – and we do, of course): it is too earnest. That’s probably a sign of the times, more than anything. Nowadays we don’t like to take things *too* seriously, at least in our fiction – that’s not to say that serious topics aren’t addresses, but that they’re always laced with humour. Plenty of contemporary novelists did know this – you won’t find earnestness in the pages of the Provincial Lady, and yet she does hit home time and again. I’m not saying the novel should have avoided all its pontificating moments – they are often done thoughtfully and thoroughly, but… when you get to another speech about honour or why men choose to fight, etc. etc., you can’t help wish a little that Playfair had spread her delightful humour more evenly into every corner.
And this, despite its more serious and even harrowing moments, is a very funny novel. Playfair has something of Delafield’s wry analysis of character, and is not above a thread or two of Wodehousian humour now and then. I liked odd touches like this:
As always, the moment Cressida crossed the threshold, the dogs appeared from apparently nowhere, their extreme empressement obviously assumed partly out of excitement, and partly to give an impression of not having been on one of the spare beds.I haven’t even mentioned the other story threading through the novel; that of Charles Valery in the wreckage of a destroyed ship, surviving alone at sea, and eventually making his way back to Cressida’s house (which is actually his own). These sections, naturally given his solitude, take mostly the form of his thoughts – they aren’t intended to have the humour or sparkle seen elsewhere in the novel, but they are involving and thought-provoking. Of course, these separate strands of the novel come together, but not in the way which you might expect…
All in all, A House in the Country is another Persephone triumph (and one with a very good, informative Preface). It’s not one of their books which is much mentioned in the blogosphere, but I think it should be. I have read few novels with so intriguing an angle on wartime living, and – as I have said – Cressida is a wonderful character. This isn’t the novel I was expecting, when I pulled the title off the shelf, and it certainly isn’t as relaxing a read as I’d anticipated – but I’m happy to say that it is a better one, and significantly more thought-provoking.