I’m still just about reading books acquired in 2019 but this was a glorious Christmas present and well worth the wait. It was one of Persephone’s 2019 offering; they have also published another by this author, both found in archives and never before published. This book has a new Preface by Victor de Waal (Elisabeth’s son) and an Afterword by Peter Stansky: both concentrate on the author’s life and the circumstances by which her novel manuscripts ended up in a US archive, and don’t give much discussion of the text, but both areas are highly interesting.

Elisabeth de Waal – “Milton Place”

(25 December 2019 – from Ali)

An absorbing and very readable novel, set in those interesting years just after the Second World War when people were adjusting to life again – and places were, too, as the house that’s the location for the novel was comandeered during the war, as so many were.

An Austrian woman, Anita, writes to an old friend from her mother’s address book when she badly needs to escape from her horrendous memories of the war and get some rest and quiet. Mr Barlow, who receives the letter, was terribly in love with Anita’s mother, having only seen her twice while himself engaged; he settled for the loveless marriage that ensued but constantly harks back to that time. Now a reminder of it is here, and he becomes very accustomed to her being around, the old ghost fading. I was a little bit confused why people just ‘accepted’ Anita as ‘a foreigner’ rather than a very recent enemy: maybe they think she’s a refugee, which she is in parts, and there’s certainly a good dollop of xenophobia of the general kind washing around.

Mr Barlow has two dreadful daughters, one bossy and one clingy – and of course they don’t like the idea of this woman of their age hanging around and inveigling her way into their father’s life, especially at a time when bossy Emily is plotting to winkle him out of the country house and into a nice, modern flat, pensioning off his trusty old retainers as she goes. There is a beloved grandson, too, who comes to visit, a product of the ‘generation gap’ straining to escape his father but dreading National Service. Anita fascinates both men, but without really meaning to – all she does is be kind to them and the shut-up old house, but that’s all anyone seems to need.

But the real joy in this book isn’t in the plot, however well-done that is. It’s in the quiet and deep observation of the house, the garden and their inhabitants. There are moments of drama, and a few of farce, tension and a love story, but the main love story is that of a man for his garden, I think, and the joy of the plot is actually found again in the quiet but precise observation – the nuances of an unpleasant and strained atmosphere at the tea table; the contrast between Emily’s inability to notice nature and Anita’s quiet glory in it. The human relationships are finely drawn in their shifts and contrasts, and incidental characters like the essentially kind Mrs Peacock beautifully observed. 

Several (many?) of Persephone’s books centre around what happens to the big houses when society has changed and they are too much to keep up. This adds much to this group and is a satisfying read.

(Here is Ali’s review – did we buy it for each other? I can’t remember now!)