Next book in my 20 Books of Summer (intro post here), and I’m now reading my third and fourth (and working down the pile nicely in order, too!). Heaven-Ali gave me this one as part of my LibraryThing Virago Group Not So Secret Santa gift for Christmas 2020 (along with its prequel, “Yeoman’s Hospital“).

Helen Ashton – “The Half-Crown House”

(25 December 2020, from Ali)

Set over 24 hours, as “Yeoman’s Hospital” was, the half-crown house is the crumbling manor house inhabited by the Hornbeam family a sort of sad and crumbling remnant itself, as we have Henrietta, whose twin brother was killed in the Second World War, living there with her grandmother, bedridden but holding the strings of the house still, her cousin Charles and various old retainers. Into this comes Victor, Henry’s son and thus the heir, but a young boy, dropped off by his mother and stepfather to live in the world of the Hornbeams. And why the title? Because they let visitors into the house and gardens for half a crown to try to keep things going.

We meander through the day, there are visitors to the house and gardens and an American who’s keen on Henrietta comes to view a painting he wants to buy with his art dealer. One set of paying visitors stays for tea and the post-war social situation is shown up, with crumbling aristocrats and new money, and some doctors left who aren’t on the NHS. We inhabit the viewpoints and minds of various characters of different types through the day. It will take some kind of shocking event to happen to make something work out for, perhaps, the best. Does one? I wouldn’t like to give anything away; I will say that the kitchen cat comes through it all fine.

The racial politics is a bit startling in this book. I noticed a few slightly dodgy comments about the West Indian heiress who married into the family a couple of centuries back and about living in Kenya, then noticed these were all put in the mouths of characters we’re obviously supposed to find unattractive. The same with the one anti-Semitic moment, and the person discussed there is very much not a stereotype. While it’s inconceivable in the book that the gentleman who visits from the Caribbean and tries to claim his heritage could do so, the family is proud of its “black children”, seen in a painting, from whom Cousin Charles is proudly descended, and he would have liked to have seen the chap end up with the house. So that’s interesting for a book published in 1956, I felt.

A poignant moment was provided by a discussion of Queen Elizabeth, only just crowned then but predicted by a small, grubby boy to be the last monarch, with all to be gone by the time young Victor comes of age – little did Ashton know I’d be reading this book just after the Diamond Jubilee! But a poignant book all told, and covering a desperate time for the lovely old homes of England (still struggling and taking in paying visitors, of course, by the time of “Murder Before Evensong“!

This was number 2 in my 20 Books of Summer 2022!

This was also TBR Challenge 2021-22 Quarter 3 Book 9/41 – 32 to go.