TOP 500 REVIEWERon 2 August 2014
Autobiographical novels - and apparently this is one - should have the ring of truth: they are rooted in experience and their events are spun out of memories, observations, feelings and the general sweep of things. This novel is a fine example of that. It describes, in language which is precise, direct, and finely observed, nearly twenty years of the life of Catherine in an Oxford village with her doctor husband William and their three children. It is a period novel, beginning in 1915 and ending in 1933 when the book was published. It is a tale of small events, of a quiet, though somewhat, mismatched marriage which has its fair share of disappointments; it is a map of the wonder and exasperations of motherhood, and a picture of three very different children growing up in a rural setting. It is also a portrait of how the countryside gradually became urbanised and spoilt by industry and tourists, cars and roads, the beginning of a process that all of us are only too well aware of today - and in this sense the novel constitutes a social history as well as a portrait of a marriage.
Perhaps its greatest achievement is the way it traces Catherine's inner life over that time. For many years, she feels something of an outsider in the village even though her neighbours are welcoming. At first she is dreamy and idealistic, but years of family toil and near poverty - money, or the lack of it, is always of point of friction in the marriage - force her to be practical and resigned. Keeping her tetchy and sometimes insensitive husband happy, and with the advent of three infants, she has little time for herself and is often worn out; this, and her relative poverty, takes its toll on her spirits and self-esteem. But as the children grow she becomes absorbed in their separate personalities and is, on the whole, content with her role as wife and mother. She has no frustrated desires to be anything else, though she often feels hemmed in, a drudge. Many women who have experienced or are in similar situations will recognise the accuracy of this portrayal. But though the author looks at Catherine's life with a clear eye, she never invites us to feel sorry for her, never pities her. This is a portrait of an ordinary life in an ordinary family; it does not set out to be a criticism - though it's easy to condemn Catherine's limited horizons. In its quiet, unshowy way, it's one of the best portraits of an old-fashioned kind of motherhood you'll come across.
The novel's not perfect. As it's a one-point-of-view story, we never get inside the skin of William. He's only presented in outline as he relates to his wife and family, as a typical, no-nonsense father. It is clear he doesn't interest the author. There is also quite a lot of tangential stuff to do with Catherine's older nephew and niece, especially towards the end, which doesn't quiet find its place in the novel. Violet, her older sister, emotionally blind, out of kilter with her puzzling children, is something of a tragi-comic creation: while the world changes around her, she doesn't, and is gradually being left stranded in her own, contracting world.
One of the chief pleasures of this novel is its evocation of the Oxfordshire countryside, a countryside that was so much fuller, lusher, more prevalent in those days. It sometimes reminded me of 'Lark Rise to Candleford'. As a rural novel, it draws upon a deep and knowledgeable understanding of rural communities and farms, creating a setting that's fully realised and realistic. It's an unsentimental, quiet, unmythic, sharp-eyed celebration of the countryside.
In reprinting this book 80 years after its first publication, Persephone Books have made another good choice and I'm sure many new readers will come to love this book..