A House in the Country Paperback – 22 Mar 2002
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'A romantic novel which is an evocative tribute to the roles in the Second World War of those who were left at home...the lighter moments exude comic energy.' -- The Tablet June 2002
The novel's strength is its evocation of the preoccupations of wartime England and its mood of battered but sincere optimism. -- Jenny Hartley in The Times Literary Supplement May 2002
This elegant elegiac romance captures the fading splendour of an England dragged into ugly modernity by the brutality of war. .. a touching love story... -- Daily Mail 19 April 2002
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Leaving the moralising aside, there's a mildly engaging underlying story about Cressida, the most unselfish woman in the world, who has filled a beautiful English country house with some (not very amusing) wartime misfits. Cue for some typical Persephone passages about cabbages and Agas and middleclass women getting to grips with housework for the first time in their lives. The house belongs to the man who is the love of Cressida's life, but who has accidentally killed her unpleasant husband. As no nice woman in domestic literature must profit from the death of a husband, this love of course remains unconsummated to the end. While Cressida riddles the Aga, her chap (a Grand National-winning jockey, with a gammy leg) is bobbing about for an appalling two weeks in a liferaft having been torpedoed in the Atlantic.
There is, admittedly a lovely elegiac quality to some of the writing. I rather thought it might have made a better stiff-upper-lip old black and white film than it does a novel. Celia Johnson as Cressida.
It's a thoughtful, well-meaning book. But too worthy to be really enjoyable.
Playfair writes of the fundamental changes that the war has brought to the country and philosophises about how it will change the future, despite the fact that England has not been invaded physically. She talks about changes to the social and class structure, the liberation and independence of women and the changing relationships between men and women. Cressida is a surprisingly modern woman, thinking of physical love and relationships as well as marriage and spiritual love and not being afraid to voice her opinions.
I loved this book. It was unusual, and clever and prescient, and I would be really interested to read more of Playfair's work.
"I said did she suppose these nice, shy young men liked walking up to private houses and asking for rooms, and being made to feel like commercial travellers or even confidence men, and did she realise that it might be the only chance some wretched couple might have of living together. I'm afraid I even said it might be the last few weeks of any of their lives."
The most outstanding of the guests is Tori, a central European refugee who has undergone horrors abroad, and who engages Cressida in some noble and idealistic conversations on war and Christianity. In complete contrast is Cressida's utterly self-centred elderly Aunt Jessica, who comes to stay.
Interspersed with their lives, we follow Cressida's long-absent lover, Charles, as he is lost at sea after his ship is torpedoed...
Ms Playfair writes quite beautifully:
'Yes, there are the cabbages, she thought, in neat rows, and a pie in the oven, and a thousand bombers going out in a night; five or six thousand highly trained young men with nervous, useful fingers, good at mending wireless sets, playing the piano, tinkering with cars and leaking roofs, doing endless, fiddling invaluable jobs...'
'Life goes on and on. The cabbages stand in rows and somewhere men are clutching at wreckage in wild seas with oil burning on the water. the trains are full of men reading their newspapers, and somewhere old men and women are being driven in herds away from their homes, sleeping in the cold under trees, hiding in cellars and jungles.'
But I found Cressida - that calm, beautiful, wise 37 year old, beloved by all - somewhat hard to warm to. And the last couple of chapters which contain more splendidly noble sentiment than the rest of the book put together, were just too much and spoilt what had been a fairly good novel.
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