21 October 2013

A House in the Country by Jocelyn Playfair

It was a sunny day in May of 2009 when I first crossed the threshold of Persephone Books on Lamb's Conduit Street in London.  I held a list of eight titles, perhaps more, and A House in the Country was one of them.  That list had been well thought out, reviews were scoured; four stars at least before my hard-earned money would be plunked down on the counter.  For the life of me though I simply can not remember any knowledge of this book being set in a country house during World War II because surely if I had it would not have sat on a shelf for four years.  There is a 'but' coming...

If Jocelyn Playfair had wanted to write a cosy kitchen drama I don't think she would have opened the story with an enemy attack on a ship.  Within a page and a half all that remains on the horizon is a lifeboat containing two bodies.  Charles Valery has been badly burned but is alive while his fellow soldier, Harcourt, hasn't fared as well.  For the next two weeks, Charles contemplates an incident from his past, the war, why the human race goes to battle in the first place, and last but not least...love.

'Men would fight for all kinds of reasons, good and bad.  They would fight with magnificent courage and selfless heroism.  But it would be interesting to know how many men, in any given battle, were there because the others were there, because it was easier to move with a mass than to think for oneself, because it was better to do what everyone else did, rather than make oneself noticeable'

Let's leave Charles to drift on the open seas; he'll be there awhile.  Brede Manor is a lovely country house and Cressida Chance has been given the responsibility of seeing to the running of things.  Highly independent and practical, she takes in lodgers as a means of income but also to satisfy her socialist side.  Everyone is welcome whether they be European, English, single, married, with family or without...and despite Aunt Jessie's snobbery for etiquette...everyone is to eat in the kitchen.  Cressida has worked it out and the relaxed dining saves eight hundred and thirty-five hours of work a year.  Much to her Aunt's dismay, Cressida even does the cooking but she is steadfast in her loyalty.

'Has she always let rooms?' the young woman, as Miss Ambleside had begun angrily to classify her, went on undaunted.  
'My niece,'she said sternly, 'does not let rooms.  She is kind enough to allow people to stay in her house because the war has filled the country with people who have nowhere to live.'

Felicity Brent has recently become engaged and is inspecting the rooms her future husband has chosen to be their first home.  Can you say 'uppity glamour-puss'?  I could have read a whole novel featuring verbal spars and telling glances between Felicity and the other residents.  In fact, if you ask me there was a missed opportunity to shed more light on the camaraderie, or lack of it, between all of the guests but oh well.

Another interesting resident is Tori, a European refugee who spends hours in his room writing a book.  When he's not writing he favours rooting around the kitchen for any sign of something about to come out of the oven.  Cressida and Tori enjoy philosophical banter but quite a lot of the time he is concurrently admiring her modern ways, independence, and the way the light catches on her hair.  Well, she makes a nice change from the likes of Felicity with her constant pampering and catty comments!  There is another 'but' coming...

I feel awful about reacting a bit negatively about the philosophical bits.  Charles is armed with loads of it; on the one hand he has nothing to do but think while he's drifting in a dinghy, waiting to be found.  On the other hand, the reader learns next to nothing about how he managed to survive for fourteen days with almost nothing in the way of nourishment.  I wanted a bit of a tale about catching fish with his bare hands or raw skin from the salty air.  Then there is Cressida, one gaze at her rows of cabbage and she would start in...one bit in particular left me gobsmacked...

'Beyond a kind of mass-produced anger with the enemy, the average person in England was probably almost without a vindictive thought.  The famous British character was, in fact, strangely lacking in the capacity for hatred.'  ....'If a census of emotion could be taken in the two countries it would certainly be found that the Germans hated the British far more fiercely than the other way about.'

These sorts of philosophical passages stripped away the characters for me and became more about a delivery straight from the pages of Jocelyn Playfair's memoirs.  I know, I know, authors do that sort of thing all the time but in this case, while important, the lengthy duration did detract a bit from the story here and there.  Don't let that nugget of negativity put you off of an excellent read though.  A House in the Country is one of those finite stories written during the war when its outcome was uncertain; the insight into daily life and thoughts of those far from home are so valuable.  Yet another gem from Persephone Books.

        Runway Perspective by Eric Ravilious


  1. I reacted negatively, too, though I enjoyed it when it wasn't being too worthy and philosophical. Think it might have read better in 1944 than it does now.

  2. I enjoyed this one, too (except for the philosophical bits). And, ahem, please know that it is perfectly normal (averted eyes) to buy a book that you've been wanting to read and then (sigh) letting it sit on your shelves for years and years. It happens all the time....

  3. I'm not even going to tell you the number of Persephone books still unread from my 2011 visit...

  4. Though I've read mixed reports about this one lately it sticks in my mind that I heard Nicola Beauman describe it as 'the quintessential Persephone book.' I'll get to my copy one of these days .

  5. Fantastic, thoughtful review, Darlene! I thought the novel excellent, although very much not what I was expecting from the title - but perhaps I was feeling a little more philosophical when I read it than usual.

  6. Thank you, thank you for another great review. I have gotten so many wonderful book tips from you. Will be looking for this one.