18 June, 2013

The House At Old Vine, by Norah Lofts. Book review

First published 1961. Edition reviewed: The History Press, 2009, ISBN 978-0-7524-4868-8. 349 pages.

The House at Old Vine is set in 1496-1680, mainly in and around the fictional town of Baildon in Suffolk. Some historical events and figures appear in the background, such as the English Civil War. All the main characters are fictional.

The House at Old Vine follows on from The Town House (reviewed here earlier), and continues the tale of Martin Reed’s descendants and the other inhabitants of the house he built. Maude Reed, Martin’s grand-daughter, appears in The Town House and also in The House at Old Vine, and links the two novels.  Like its predecessor, The House at Old Vine consists of several separate but interlinked tales, each recounted by a different narrator.  Usually the narrators are a generation or two apart.  This gives the book more of the feel of a collection of linked short stories than a conventional novel.  The unusual structure works well, partly because the house itself is the main source of continuity.  The people come and go, some remembered by the generations who follow them and some forgotten, while the house endures through the centuries.  The structure also has the effect of showing some characters from different points of view, thus throwing new light on their actions and behaviour.

As in The Town House, The House at Old Vine conveys an authentic sense of how it might have been to live and work in a provincial English town during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Most of the narrators are middle class, as they belong to a family that owns not only a substantial house but also a business based there, whether it is cloth manufacturing, a hostelry or a kindly but down-at-heel boarding school.  Sometimes the perspective is from lower down the social scale, as with Josiana’s description of the unrelenting toil of the medieval peasant’s life, or outside it altogether, as in Ethelreda’s vivid account of her childhood in the Fens before the traditional way of life was extinguished by landowners’ drainage schemes. The great events of politics and war happen in the background, and profoundly shape the lives and choices available to the characters.  From the religious conflicts of the sixteenth century, when “…the beliefs for which Walter Rancon had died were now compulsory”, to the spies and plots of the Civil War, the inhabitants of the house experience and respond to the events of their times as well as to their personal concerns. Social changes shape the different generations of narrators too, as wool manufacture gives way to silk with changes in trade and fashion, or the demise of the monasteries leaves an unfilled need for hostelries that can accommodate respectable travellers, or the expansion of the East India Company (forerunner of Empire) creates a demand for boarding schools where the children of expatriate officials can be brought up and educated, or as new forms of entertainment such as plays and concerts become widely popular.  The house too changes with the times, evolving from private house to manufacturing enterprise to hotel to boarding school and back again.

Characterisation is lively and convincing.  All the narrators and many of the secondary characters are individuals with their own foibles and motivations, mostly neither good nor bad but something in between.  There seems to be a strange psychopathic trait that crops out occasionally in the descendants of Martin Reed – readers of The Town House will recognise its supposed origin – described by the perceptive Maude Reed as “The charm and the heartlessness […] Something not – not quite human, something wild and unaccountable”. For the most part the narrators are not the people with this characteristic, but the ones trying to deal with its consequences. 

There is no historical note or map, perhaps reflecting the original publication date (1961), or perhaps because all the main characters, places and events are fictional.

Sequel to The Town House, taking the story of Martin Reed’s house and his descendants into the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.


Rick said...

A bit lost in the vastness of my to-read list, but like its predecessor this one sounds well worth keeping in mind.

Interesting little observation about the original publication date in relation to the lack of a map or historical note. I wonder if Tolkien had an effect that spilled over into historical fiction.

Carla said...

I would say these are well worth reading. If you only have time for one, I think the first (The Town House) is the best, especially Martin Reed's tale.

Perhaps it was expected that people could look up real places on an atlas if they wanted to know the locations, so it was felt there was no need for a map. Cost may also have been an issue in the days before digital printing, perhaps?

Rick said...

Now people could look up real places on Google Maps, with significantly less effort! Especially since a traditional atlas wouldn't have street maps of (say) a medium sized city.

Cost is another matter, and seems to have played out in various ways over the years. My impression is that at one time, it was not uncommon for novels to have a few illustrations. (So maps would not have been a problem, if anyone thought of them.) But that practice (alas) died out by around midcentury. Cost? Changing attitudes? I don't know.

Carla said...

Street maps of a modern city are often not very helpful for historical fiction, as cities change so much. Even if the street plan follows the line of older streets in part, as often happens, it can be hard to tell, and the names often change anyway. Sometimes the historical street layout isn't really known in detail and the author has to infer/ extrapolate/ make it up. If the detailed locations are important to the story, as is often the case in mysteries, where it matters whether Person A could have got from Location X to Location Y in a certain time without being seen, either you need quite a lot of detail in the text (which readers may miss or forget), or a map in the novel as there's no other source of information. This doesn't really apply to the House trilogy, though.
Are you thinking of things like the original illustrations in Dickens or Sherlock Holmes? I don't know how the price of a printed novel or the Strand magazine related to average wages at the time. The guy who founded Penguin is supposed to have set the price of a book at about the same as a packet of cigarettes, and I guess that probably wouldn't have covered illustrations.

Rick said...

I forgot that writers like Dickens originally came out in periodicals, which could explain the illustrations. And the pricing of early Penguin editions would certainly explain not illustrating them.

But I have a (hazy) sense that changing attitudes also influenced the decline of illustrations somewhere around midcentury. Granted that economics can often be dressed up as virtue!

Carla said...

You may be right about a change in attitudes, no doubt publishing has its own trends and fashions.