June 16th, 2011


Upstairs, Downstairs

If you want to get published, write a story about a country house, preferably a decaying one. If you can bring in the Second World War, so much the better. I’ve just read two such. One is so bad it was in constant danger of being flung across the room in disgust (shocking editing, misplaced sentiment). The kindest thing is to say nothing about it. The other is just as good as I’d hoped and it’s The Novel in the Viola by Natasha Solomons. I enjoyed her first book, Mr Rosenblum’s List but this is better.

Elise Landau is the daughter of cultured, assimilated Jews living in Vienna; her mother Anna an opera singer, her father Julian a writer. Whatever it may say on the book cover, she is not ‘a bright young thing’, just a bourgeoise, used to living in comfort with a loving family. After the Anschluss her parents make plans. Elise’s married sister is to go to California, where her husband has been offered a university post. Anna and Julian are headed for America too, when their visa comes through. Elise will go to England as a domestic servant. One day they will all meet up in New York.

Elise’s quirky job application has caught the eye of Mr Rivers, a Dorset squire, and so Elise, with her poor English and even worse domestic skills, finds herself at Tyneford. This is based on the real Tyneham, now a ghost village, which you can read about here and here. At first she is desperately homesick for the cocoon of Vienna (that kindly old Vienna you find in Eva Ibbotson’s books). Gradually she gets used to her new life in an English country manor house and even falls in love. But that visa never comes through and she thinks constantly of her parents and sister.

If you’ve followed the links, you know what became of Tyneham/Tyneford. That loss is a metaphor for all the other losses: of home, family and love. The book is one long ache of loss yet manages to be sad without being entirely depressing. The Dorset countryside and coast is lovingly and accurately described, an extra bonus for me. I read on because I wanted to know what happened but at the same time didn’t want to finish. It’s impossible not to want things to turn out well for Elise and she does make a new life, very different from the future she may have imagined when she was a young girl. What makes this especially poignant is that many of her generation are still alive; they might be the parents of Jewish girls I knew at school, people who were born German or Austrian and brought up their daughters to be English.

There’s a little promotional video on Amazon. It makes Elise look like The French Lieutenant’s Woman, IMO, but there you go.