Review 1376: A Harp in Lowndes Square

In a lonely attic, a neglected child sits and makes clothing for her doll out of old clothes. Everyone is out, surely, but she hears voices on the stairs. These voices belong to her two children, twenty years in the future.

Those children are twins, Vere and James, who have been taught by their mother that all time is simultaneous. The two do indeed experience flashes of visions and sounds from other times, events that occurred in the room years before.

Vere and James’s happy growing up, along with their sister, Lalage, is interrupted by the death of their father. The family is left in financial difficulties and must move from their suburban home to a small house in London. This brings their mother, Anne, back into the orbit of her own mother, the formidable Lady Vallant.

It is clear that, when she returns from visits to her mother, Anne appears to be more worn than usual. Anne’s children know that the two don’t get along and suspect that Lady Vallant harasses Anne. However, a chance remark reveals to them an aunt they didn’t know existed, Myra, who died when she was young.

Vere and James receive impressions of serious events that are not talked about. They begin trying to find out the secrets in their family’s past.

This novel is a ghost story but not in the sense of one meant to scare. It reflects Ferguson’s interest in houses and her sense that actions taken in a room stay in that room’s atmosphere. This idea also occupied A Footman for a Peacock, which I found considerably less likely than this novel, which is set during World War I.

I like a ghost story, but this novel has more going on than that. It’s a story of how family events can affect the lives of others who weren’t even alive when they happened. It’s a good character study of Vere, who cares deeply about a few people but is meticulous and reticent in nature. It is also about a chaste love affair with an older man—and his wife. I didn’t really understand the charms of that relationship, but I very much enjoyed this novel.

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Day 1267: Alas, Poor Lady

Cover for Alas, Poor LadyBest of Five!
A Footman for the Peacock was a strange little book, so I didn’t quite know what to expect from the much longer Alas, Poor Lady. It turned out to be an astonishingly feminist novel for being published in 1937.

At the beginning of the novel, Miss Scrimgeour, an elderly woman, receives the charitable gift of a two-room flat and an annuity for life. One of the women involved in the charity realizes that Miss Scrimgeour is a gentlewoman, of the same class as herself, and that she previously had no income at all. She exclaims, “How did that happen?” This novel answers that question.

It begins in 1870, when Grace Scrimgeour is born into a wealthy family. She is the youngest of six sisters, born almost a generation behind her last sister, but she is not the youngest child. Two years later, the Scrimgeour’s only son is born.

All the girls are raised to become wives and mothers. At least the oldest girls are sent away to school, but after Charlie is born, Grace’s upbringing is neglected and she is left to be educated by a governess who is not very competent.

The two girls marry, but it becomes clear that Mary and Queenie will not. Mary attempts to be useful by offering to teach Grace and Charlie, but her attempts to find herself an occupation are rebuffed by her parents.

As biddable, affectionate Grace nears her debut, Captain Scrimgeour spends more and more of his money on Charlie, selling out of stable financial funds to do so. Grace’s unmarried sisters become a problem once she is “out,” because most hostesses don’t want to entertain six Scrimgeours, so they leave Grace off their invitation lists. Her parents are now too elderly to see she has proper opportunities to meet someone, and neither of her married sisters take her in hand.

The novel follows the downward trend of the family’s finances, especially after Mrs. Scrimgeour is left in charge, herself having never received any instruction about finances. Clearly, tough times are ahead for the three unmarried sisters.

This novel shows painfully the origins of the destitute lady spinster—how everything in her upbringing works against her ability to support herself. Painfully ironic for the reader, who can see where things are trending, is a scene in which the newly widowed Mrs. Scrimgeour, blithely pledging £500 for a bed in the hospital for children, money she cannot afford, ignores a plea to help indigent gentlewomen, thinking the women are shiftless.

This novel is touching and eye-opening. The two most sympathetic characters are Grace, even more so her valiant sister Mary. But there is also a delightful family Grace goes to work for later.

Although I found this novel sad, it was enthralling and affecting. I highly recommend it. Another great novel from Persephone Press.

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Day 1217: A Footman for the Peacock

Cover for A Foot man for the PeacockA Footman for the Peacock is a strange little novel. The novel was controversial when it was first published during World War II, because it depicts an upper-class family that tries to avoid its civic duty during the war. But that activity seems almost incidental to the rest of the plot.

What is the plot? The narration flits around in time but centers on the Roundelay family. Their current configuration consists of Sir Edmund and Lady Evelyn and their household of two daughters, three elderly aunts, and three or four servants, including the retired and senile Nursie. When we finally seem to be settling somewhere, on the new Lady Evelyn’s growing acquaintance with the village and regional customs, we stay only long enough for her to hear an old running song, which Evelyn in her innocence takes to be about hunting. then we skip over to her daughter, Angela.

Angela seems to have a sensitivity to an upper-floor servant’s bedroom where the words “Heryn I dye, Thomas Picocke, 1792” are etched on a window pane. She makes an odd connection between this room and an unfriendly peacock in the grounds of the estate, which seems to be signalling Nazi bombers to destroy the house.

I guess I found this novel, which has a supernatural element, peculiar enough to be amusing, but it certainly has an unusual premise. I had more of a problem with the scattered narrative style, which took a long time to get somewhere. Ultimately, the novel becomes a story of class abuse and cruelty in the 18th century.

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