I didn’t intend to jump from postwar rural idyll to postwar rural idyll, but I guess that’s just what I want in my books at the moment. (Stay tuned for a bunch of James Herriot rereads, I guess?) A House in the Country, by Ruth Adam, is one of the new Furrowed Middlebrow reprints by Dean Street Press. Published in 1957, it’s a lightly fictionalised version of the author’s experiences trying to live in a big manor house in postwar Kent, somewhere just outside Ashford. It was marketed as a novel, but she didn’t even change the names. I am tempted to just classify this as nonfiction and have done. The weird hovering between paradigms definitely affected my experience of the book, since Adam was not adopting the conventions of other one or the other – but I enjoyed it very much nonetheless.
The story starts with an increasingly relatable premise. Beaten down by the privations of war, Ruth and her husband, along with several friends who have been living in their cramped quarters during the final months of the war, daydream together about a life that has probably never been real, and certainly wasn’t by 1944. They picture a big country house, close enough to the village but out on its own somewhere, with room enough for everyone and fresh strawberries in early summer. When they see a listing for an old manor house in Kent that they can afford by combining their six salaries, it seems too good to be true, but it also seems like they absolutely have to take the opportunity. The grimy austerity of their London digs are captured in a few sentences, making the appeal of the manor house all the more obvious.
It was the end of the war, and we were very tired of squalor. We were tired of the black-our edging obscuring the daylight from the windows and of breakfasts of powdered egg eaten at noon because one had been fire-watching last night. We were so very tired of disorder – of living in one room to save fuel, of the smell of scraps boiling up for the backyard hens, of beds in the downstairs rooms and of a grubby air-raid shelter in the tiny neglected garden.
I say this is relatable because, even though I love my little flat with a great deal of fervour, and it’s nothing like the grim picture Adam paints here, I spent the early months of the pandemic mostly watching reruns of Escape to the Country. As the nights draw in, I expect I will start watching it again. If you want to just read a nice cosy story about a countryside idyll, though, this might not be it. A House in the Country is very funny, in places – but it isn’t cosy. You know from the off – from the very first sentence, below – that the story is going to end badly, though not exactly how. I’m grateful that Adam warned us, because initially the long golden summer afternoons and huge magnolia trees of the country house seduced me just as much as they did her.
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.
I am originally from Kent, which remains lousy with manor houses and small castles. Most of them have been turned into hotels of one variety or another. When I was reading, I was picturing something like the below. I probably wasn’t too far off, either, since it turns out that Eastwell Manor is near Ashford. Kent has always been full of itself. Its symbol – especially for county town Maidstone, where I grew up – is the invicta horse; proudly unconquered. It was stitched into my school uniform. This is baffling, since Kent has been conquered so much on account of being right by the sea. Our slogan should be not “unconquered” but “conquered less frequently than location would suggest” or “not conquered for a while now”. I’ve read other books set in Kent – Great Expectations is enforced reading if you’re going to school in Maidstone, Medway, or anywhere near it – but this is the first book that I felt really captured the things about it that have stuck with me. Viz., that the countryside is beautiful, the villages are hostile, and it never snows at Christmas. It really felt like I was reading about Kent – not an interchangeable Home County, but actually Kent itself. Kent – which people see as one of the wealthiest places in our wealthy country, and which has some of the worst deprivation in the UK.
A House in the Country is not idealistic, and in fact it concerns itself largely with the falling apart of the narrator’s idealism. It was very interesting reading it right off the back of The Fat of the Land. My complaint about that book was its refusal to engage with the fact that a slightly less picturesque life for the upper-middle class was the price being paid for a substantially better life for the working class. A House in the Country addresses this in spades. Every difficulty that Adam and her friends have is smoothed over by Howard, the elderly gardener who comes with the house and is deeply committed to it. Howard understands the peculiar water system – Howard kept the greenhouse going illicitly during the war – Howard carefully and delicately assisted the Colonel, the previous owner, with his domestic arrangements – Howard did it all. Howard himself doesn’t seem to mind this, but as they realise that they will need more staff to keep a place like the manor going, Adam and co start to realise the extent to which it is an inequitable system. Young people in postwar Britain wanted a better life, a more independent life, than could be got in domestic service – and why shouldn’t they? Adam starts to imagine the ghost of a little overworked scullery maid pursuing her in her sleep. They try to modernise, with a 40 hour work week, paid overtime, and careful shift schedules, but it doesn’t help much.
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.
Although I enjoyed this book enormously, it’s not perfect. Because this is telling a true story, rather than one carefully worked out according to narrative convention, the second half of the book feels rushed. Curious episodes or experiences that would probably be blown up into whole chapters in a fictional novel, or analysed in more depth in acknowledged nonfiction, were dashed out in a few paragraphs. For example, at one point, the householders find themselves unexpectedly dealing with some issues related to a staff member’s spouse. The whole thing is important as it relates to Adam’s theme of falling out of love with the manor, of no longer feeling that it reflects security and sanctuary, but it’s dealt with very briefly. I had to flip back and forth quite a lot before I really understood what was going on. Fewer anecdotes, chosen more carefully and expanded upon in more depth, might have been helpful here. The whole book feels episodic, which is not my favourite style of storytelling – the fact that I still enjoyed it so much is testament to how well it was told.
The ending itself is great, and it doesn’t feel rushed or halfhearted. Perhaps that is because the end of their experiment was still seared into Adam’s mind when she was writing about it a couple of years later. I was sad to see the extent to which her memories were still soured at the time of writing, a theme that runs through the book. I hope that, by the end of her life at least, she had come to see her time living in the manor as an experiment that was worth trying – if only because it produced such an interesting book. Don’t read the introduction first – it’s full of spoilers; when will publishers stop doing this? – but it makes an interesting addition to the book, providing some context about this period of Adam’s life and of history generally. Even if you aren’t fussed about the historical context, though, I recommend the book – a vicarious house renovation/countryside escape, without ever having to go through it yourself.
Both the spoilers in the introduction, and the folks who simple summarize most of the book, need to go down in flames in the book industry. I hate when I read a short story collection after reading the introduction, and it’s more like I’m RE-reading because the intro talked so much about each story’s best points.
I also read a memoir that was fictionalized, called Return to Laughter, and I was surprised to learn it was mostly memoir but for various (and confusing) reasons, it’s marketed as nonfiction.
Thankfully I skipped the introduction this time, having been burnt too many times in the past, but when I read it afterwards I was astonished at how much info was in it. It basically quotes the climactic scene of the book! It’s a great introduction but it should have been an afterword.
Yes! Why does that happen?!