‘A House in the Country’ by Jocelyn Playfair

 

A House in the Country

Fiction – paperback; Persephone Books; 264 pages; 2002.

There’s nothing quite like reading a Persephone Book: the weighty feel of them in the hand, the beautiful endpapers (pictured above), the creamy pages and the strangely old-fashioned Baskerville font feels like such a delicious treat.

I’d been saving this one up for a special “occasion”. I figured it would be perfect holiday reading, curled up by the fire in a little cottage in Cornwall, free from the usual schedules and appointments that clutter up my life. Alas, A House in the Country was not the kind of book to be read with the brain in neutral. It’s a deeply philosophical story to mull over and think about. Under normal circumstances I am sure I would have loved it. As a holiday read it failed to win me over.

Set in England in 1942, during the fall of Tobruk, this is a war novel told from a women’s perspective. But, more importantly, it’s a war novel that does not interpret events because, as Persephone points out in its catalogue, it was written in 1944 when the outcome of the Second World War was still uncertain. So, in essence, the flavour of the book is entirely authentic, a kind of postcard from the past that describes what life was like for those in England who were far removed from the battlefields of Europe.

The central character, Cressida Chance, is 38-year-old widow who runs a grand Georgian house in the country. Here she has numerous paying house guests whom she entertains, feeds and looks after, including her formidable elderly aunt, who visits regularly from London, and Tori, a gentleman from an unidentified European country, who has fled the war with nothing more than the clothes on his back.

Throughout the course of the novel Cressida, who is the mother of a
young boy, agonises over the causes of war.

Were humans incapable of happiness, or was it that happiness itself was an invention, a sort of spur, created by man’s instinctive desire to have something to encourage him through a life of drudgery? Could it be that this — this mass frustration — what a hideous expression, she thought — was a fundamental cause of the appalling mess humanity had made of human life?

Similarly she bemoans her fellow countrymen for their indifference to the war. She feels the English are leading selfish lives and are too sheltered from the reality of the horrors happening on the Continent.

People would not give up small personal comforts, they would not
give up the privacy of their homes, they would not give up their
amusements, their games, their use of the car when a bus travelled the
same road, they would not give up their servants, they would not even
give up making toast by electricity until these things were taken from
them by force of law. Most of Europe and a great part of Asia had had
everything, even life, taken from them by force alone. The totality of
their state of war had been violently thrust upon them. The English, by
the mercy of God and the miraculous gallantry of a few young men, had
been saved from the same fate by the skin of their teeth. But still,
still they remained, those people who wouldn’t ‘give nothing up till it
was took from them’.

Even when six bombs drop on her village one Sunday night — the first air raid that the village had endured — Cressida still feels that it has not properly woken the English up to the life and death situation facing their European counterparts.

But the story does not revolve entirely around Cressida and her constant agonising over the war. There is a separate storyline centred on Charles Valery, a military man who survives the sinking of the Alice Corrie by floating on a lifeboat for more than 15 days. Charles has a special place in Cressida’s heart — even though he is not her husband — but to say anything further would spoil the plot for any potential readers.

In essence A House in the Country is an insightful, intelligent novel that grapples with the bigger questions of war. In some places it reads like an essay — a little too preachy, a little too earnest — which might go some way to explain why it does not make the easiest of holiday reads. But if you’re in the mood for something weighty and thought-provoking then this could be the book for you.

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