In 1942 Britain was in the midst of the Second World War, with London recovering from the constant bombing and the nation unsure as to whether or not victory was possible, I can imagine an escape to the country and the safety it seemed to offer was an ideal option for many. In Jocelyn Playfair’s A House in the Country it seems that a few ‘homeless’ people have done just that and left behind their previous lives, whether by choice or by force, and have all found themselves at Brede Manor. It is here that Cressida Chance is essentially house sitting for Charles Varley, a man she is in love with and has been since before the war, despite having not seen him since the death of her husband five years earlier. Brede Manor seems to draw a mix of different people and classes and shows just how the war changed the cosy image of the servant run country manor and the lives of those who saw this as the norm. Alongside this narrative is the story of Charles Varley and how he comes to terms with his past and the hold his family estate has on him.
I really enjoyed A House in the Country and I know I always say I enjoy what I read, but this was an unexpected pleasure. I received the book as a present and admittedly I had put it on the list of books I wanted my family to choose from, but when it arrived I couldn’t remember why and I did think about some of the other books on my list that I kind of wanted more. Doesn’t that make me sound awfully spoilt and ungrateful? I like a surprise but I’m guessing I still have favourites in the books I list. However well done to my grandparents for choosing this one as I think it is the Persephone Book I have enjoyed the most.
From the opening chapter I was intrigued. It focuses on a submarine attack on a ship and the immediate aftermath of oil fires on the sea and fatal explosions. And then we automatically jump to Brede Manor and meet some of the characters who live there; as a reader I was drawn into this country lifestyle but still aware of this nagging feeling of wanting to know what had happened on this ship. Luckily the main narrative is put on hold for the occasional chapter on the aftermath of the submarine attack and the end of the novel sees the two narratives collide in an interesting and tied up conclusion.
The main character, Cressida is an engaging and refreshing female who can see that war signifies a huge change in the role of women in the house and in particular that of upper class women with the lack of servants and the need to do their own cooking and cleaning. She is certainly quick to embrace the changes, offering a stark contrast to her elderly Aunt Jessie, who finds eating in the kitchen a far from desirable affair. Cressida brings about a second mystery, the death of her husband, Simon, again with readers drip fed information and snippets about what had happened to him. Many characters refer to Cressida’s kindness and this is clear throughout the novel as she opens the house to those in need and cares for them. However her caring nature hides her loneliness and longing for an unrequited love. After the death of her husband, Cressida appears to have been living on auto pilot, putting her own happiness and feelings on hold whilst she waits for her love to (hopefully) return.
I highlighted a few quotations from the novel, but it think I am just going to share my favourite. Towards the end of the novel, Cressida is reflecting on the idea of falling in love and says:
‘It’s different when you know someone and find that you love them. You can be in love with a mere acquaintance. You can fall in love with a total stranger, at first sight and all that! And the trouble then begins because the moment you’re even a little in love you start idealising the stranger, pretty well making up a character for them which may turn out to be entirely imaginary! You can’t really love anyone until you know them.’
I love this quotation and I know I am not alone in being a little bit guilty of the type of love at first sight and over active imagination Cressida is reflecting upon here. I don’t think this is going to have a dramatic impact as it is fun to daydream, but I will certainly be returning to this section when I am in need of a reality check!