Julian dipped a sprig of parsley in the pot of sweet charoset…I popped it into my mouth and swallowed the sticky mixture of apples, cinnamon and wine. He bathed a second piece of parsley in the salt water and gave it to me, watching as I ate. My mouth stung with salt, and I tasted tears and long journeys across the sea.
This historical novel takes place in Tyneford, a small Dorset village just before World War II. Lived in by generations of the Rivers family, the home has become a shell of its former self with only Squire Rivers and his university-age son Kit as family residents.
Mrs. Ellsworth, the housekeeper has been with the Rivers since Kit was an infant and the butler, Mr. Wrexham, has directed the running of the home for decades. Both are professionals of the old school where tradition, loyalty and duty to the family outweigh any personal inconvenience. The silver is polished, fires are lit and rooms are cleaned that are no longer occupied, daily duties are scheduled and performed by staff with strict adherence to custom and routine. Any slight deviation to the “way we have always done things” just will not do, as does any slight against the family by outside forces, including the war.
Against the backdrop of this well-oiled machine comes Vienna-born Elise Landau, the newest parlor maid, hired as the need arose after turnovers with the younger staff. Elise has no experience in service and has, in fact, lived just the opposite as the doted upon younger daughter of a well-known opera singer mother and author father. But life has turned on the Jews of Vienna and her parents, like others, have been kicked out of their professions by the authorities and are finding it hard to make ends meet. Elises’s mother has encouraged her to leave the country, to answer requests for parlor maids and lady’s maids in England where it will be safer. Elise’s older sister, Margot and her husband are leaving for California where her husband has been hired by a university. Their parents, Julian and Anna, are waiting for their own visas, so they can leave for New York City where they have been promised a new life.
As the family disperses, the hope of reunification keeps them going. Margot is safe in California and Elise has made it to Tyneford. But their parents linger, now squeezed out of their home by the government and made to sell their possessions to buy food. Elise has a terrible time of it at the beginning juggling this new life of constant physical work against the emotional pain of family separation. Cleaning fireplaces, polishing silver, learning how to wait on guests at meals are steep learning curves for her; she knows she must succeed though, because she cannot go back home. But she finds herself living in a liminal state, especially when Kit entertains his friends. As the same in age, back in Vienna she would be entertaining not waiting on guests. The months pass and she is often excruciatingly slow to catch on, she has the support of Mr. Rivers who is sympathetic to her situation. And who incidentally has enjoyed her father’s novels which he has on his library shelves.
Many story lines flow through this novel and they weave in and out of each other with sadness as well as joy. The stability of tradition that Tyneford has enjoyed for generations is changing as war looms ahead. The house is commissioned by the military as a base for WAAFS and then soon for the military itself as is the whole village. Each person will deal with this new life in their own way as the ties that bound them to the land are taken out of their control.
I enjoyed this novel, though the resolution of Elise’s situation did not work for me. Still, one of the interesting parts of the novel is in the descriptions of the rites and practices of Tyneford village that center on its fishermen and their fishing traditions and the unity of actions they take to prepare against a German invasion. This aspect of the novel is a nice contrast to the upper class features of life at the main house.
In the corner of the yard, Burt and Mr. Wrexham were stringing odd-shaped stones along a fine piece of rope. The stones were large, misshapen pebbles with a hole in the centre where they had been worn away by millennia of tides. The brothers carried the stones over to the Lugger and fastened the line around the bow,…so that the stones dangled in a loop at the front of the boat. “Witch stones, ter stop witches catchin’ a lift.”
The day disappeared in a whirl of dust and exhaustion. I cleaned four guest bedrooms but none of them seemed to be in use, and they held a musty stench of neglect despite their daily airings. At five o’clock I descended the back stairs to the servants’ hall and tea. A long table had been set for supper, and Mr. Wrexham sat at one end and Mrs. Ellsworth at the other…A faded sampler nailed above our heads proclaimed the dreary motto WORK AND FAITH, while the wall was studded with little brass bells, each corresponding to a label: STUDY, DRAWING ROOM, MASTER BEDROOM and so forth.
Our boy ‘as gone ter sea
An’ sails o’er the green waves-o.
Bright ‘ee were an’ fair and young.
‘Ee has no grave, no grassy mound
Jist the green waves-o.
We’ll hear ‘is voice in the gulls
An’ in the smashin’ of the tide
But we’ll see him no more.
Fer our boy ‘as gone ter sea
An’ sails o’er the green waves-o.
“They sing this when a fisherman is lost at sea.”
Title: The House at Tyneford
Author: Natasha Solomons
Device: Trade Paperback
Challenges: Historical Fiction Reading Challenge, European Reading Challenge