Cressida Chance of Brede Manor–that sounds like a fairly typical country house, Lord of the Manor, sort of book heroine, right? Well, do read on. In 1942 Cressida has a host of interesting lodgers–billeted there for the war, of course. Household help has vanished to the factories or women’s branches of the military so Cressida pretty much has to buck up and run the whole show herself–which she does, capably, and often in trousers. The previously obligatory tweed skirt, twin set and pearls being stowed in the airing cubbord for the duration owing to lack of stockings or new girdles.
Along the way, we learn of her romance and marriage and the secrets and complications thereof. Also, understandably, there is a lot of thought on the war and how or when life will return to normal. Or if normal ever really can return. After all, they are now engaged in a life that requires “kitchen-friendly dining conversation” (p, 64). How well will the Port travel with that–even in its fine decanter?
More to the point, forgetting normal, was there really a point to this life? “There were times… when life seemed so depressingly pointless” (p.110). Pointless because people still envied others. Pointless becuase the right people married the wrong people. The people wanting the job had the wrong job. The interesting people were out there but not found. Yes, Cressida had to give this a lot of thought as she sunk her hands into the hot washing up bowl without the aid of Marigold gloves.
Then there is Tori, lovely [male] Tori who opines “Is Christianity strong enough” (p. 136) for all of this? They wondered a bit. I found this to be very, very prescient of today, especially as it followed a discussion of hatred and how the Germans had whipped it all up with propaganda. Again, very prescient.
As I read it I thought the author or the not-very-good Chilbury Ladies Choir must have read this book–the good parts of that sad novel were like parts of this one. I loved how, in spite of no servants, in spite of terror from above, in spite of rationing and no loved ones around, they got on with life, found satisfaction in doing what had to be done and, for women like Cressida especially, they found some freedom. Why women like her especially? They still had local committees and charities and voluntary services, but with the men and servants gone they had time to do things that mattered and to test themselves, to see what they were truly made of. All of this put them in good stead for the even grimmer postwar years. It let them become persons in their own right. I liked that.
Because there’ll always be an England even if the sun would soon set on the British Empire.
Joceyln Playfair, bio and photo credit