First published 1959. Edition reviewed: Hodder and Stoughton 1983, ISBN 0-340-15182-X. 350 pages
Set in and around the fictional town of Baildon in Suffolk, England, in approximately 1401-1451, The Town House tells the story of Martin Reed, who first built the house of the title, and three generations of his family. All the main characters are fictional.
In 1401, Walter is a serf training to be a smith on the manor of Rede in Norfolk. When he falls in love and the lord of the manor refuses permission to marry, Walter and his intended bride, Kate, flee to the walled town of Baildon in Suffolk. If they can live there without breaking a law or being reclaimed for a year and a day, they will gain their freedom. Walter changes his name to Martin, the better to avoid detection. Making a living and raising a family in a strange town is no easy matter, and their new life is precarious, subject daily to the vagaries of fate and the arbitrary whims – both kindly and malign – of powerful townsmen and the Abbey that dominates the town. Until rebellion flares, when tragedy strikes and Martin must make a choice.
This is a tale of medieval life as lived day to day by the ordinary people of a fairly ordinary town and its rural hinterland. The cast ranges from the destitute to the minor gentry, by way of farmers, craftsmen, labourers, traders and merchants. Kings and magnates and their doings hardly impinge on the lives of Martin and his neighbours (e.g. Agincourt happens during the period of the novel but is never mentioned). The novel conveys a vivid sense of what it might really have been like to live in the Middle Ages as a near-destitute labourer, an impoverished knight, a clerk or a prosperous merchant.
Martin’s tale of hard work for low wages, the daily struggle to avoid starvation, the joy from occasional acts of generosity, and the slow crushing of his and his wife’s modest hopes under poverty and injustice, makes compelling reading. All Martin’s industry, ingenuity and skill count for very little against the casual abuses of power that thwart him at every turn, until an unlikely twist of fate suddenly gives him an unimagined opportunity. Higher up the social scale, the daughter of an impoverished knight is almost as much a prisoner of circumstances, as are a poor knight and a girl of high birth with no dowry, and a little girl trying to understand how the grown-up world works and eventually recoiling from it in disgust. Anyone with a rose-tinted view of the Middle Ages as all about chivalry, courtly love, tournaments and pretty dresses, will find The Town House gives a refreshingly different picture of how the rest of the population lived.
All the people in the novel are individuals, with their own faults and motivations, hopes and fears, shaped by their upbringing and constrained by the society they live in. Each faces their own dilemmas and must live with the consequences of their choices. Each faces joy and tragedy and must cope in their own way. The characters are so vividly drawn that their personal quandaries and vicissitudes are every bit as gripping as any thriller about great affairs of state.
The novel is told in five overlapping first-person narratives, each recounted by a different character, interspersed with shorter sections in third person labelled ‘interludes’. It is an unusual structure but an effective one, as it shows the characters and the interactions between them from several perspectives. Actions taken by one character that seem inexplicable in one narrative become comprehensible in another when seen from a different point of view. The writing style is deceptively simple, written in clear modern English. I say ‘deceptively’ because many key events are conveyed by allusions and hints rather than spelled out explicitly. Sometimes this reflects the character who is narrating at the time; for example, Maude Reed is a little girl of eight or so and the undercurrents of adult scandal bewilder her, though the alert reader can recognise the gathering clouds. This is a novel that rewards concentration.
There is no author’s note, perhaps reflecting the date of first publication (1959), perhaps because there are no historical events or historical figures featured. The historical detail feels very authentic. A map would have been useful to set the fictional town of Baildon and the fictional port of Bywater in the context of the real places mentioned, but this is a minor detail.
Compelling family saga of three generations of a family rising from serfdom to prosperity in fifteenth-century England, with a powerful sense of authenticity and wonderfully human characters.