The House / Teresa Waugh
London: Phoenix House, c2003.
As I was tidying up a few bookshelves recently I came across this book that I had put aside to read ages ago -- and it was a good choice for a lazy weekend. It's an epistolary novel -- written in diary entries and letters, from varied perspectives.
It was not quite successful, but made for a mostly fun read. The story is thus: post-war, Sydney Otterton, the eldest son of a rich family takes over his ancestral home, which is crumbling around him. His wife is the efficient, managing sort and starts making changes that are somewhat successful. Their children have one psychotic governess, then another. There are a number of servants, a large number it seemed to me, but considering the prewar household this is extremely bare bones. And added to that, Sydney's mother is a nutjob, a crack addict and a psychopath who tortured him all through his childhood and of whom he is still afraid. Also, there's a Polish writer who is writing a history of the family and who becomes fascinated by all of them. And don't forget the sinister renters of the flat they carve out of part of the house.
All of these eccentric and over-the-top characters interact within the mostly normal circumstances of post-war England, with the primary themes being both Sydney's difficulty reintegrating into civilian life after the heightened experience of the war, and the dissolution of aristocratic society after the war. The lack of available servants, extreme death duties, and changing expectations all play a part in the new life that the Otterton family finds itself living.
Many of the characters are more caricature, as if Waugh couldn't quite decide if this was a dark comedy or a straight-ahead novel of post-war life. It becomes both, and the two elements don't always sit comfortably together. Sydney's mother was startlingly evil, and her lady's maid was pretty terrifying also. There were a few more realistic portraits, though, and reading Sydney's diary was interesting -- you could see that he was bumbling and ineffective, but through his diary some sympathy was also roused. His horrible childhood and the loss of the camaraderie and simplicity of war both affect him greatly.
But there were other characters who I enjoyed more. My favourite sections were those of Sarah's diary and of Georgina's notebook. Sarah is a general house servant, I was never quite sure what she did, but she was important and had a long history with the house. She keeps a diary, detailing the ups and downs of all the characters in the house; she seems to quietly observe everything, and has her own dramas with two possible love interests and regret at her choices. She is the voice of the modern world breaking in on the past.
Georgina is the daughter, a young girl who keeps a surreptitious notebook. It's heartbreaking -- she records the sadistic governess' behaviour while not even considering telling her parents, as she knows they would just tell her she was imagining things. The vulnerability of childhood comes out clearly, as does the situation at school, when she notes that her brother doesn't want to go back after holidays because of the abusive conditions there. She has a clear voice, with misspellings and childish clarity of vision making her very recognizable.
I enjoyed the format of the book even if it did become a bit cartoonish in parts. The variety of letters and diaries and the overall feel of the book were both well done. But it's hard to pin down exactly what Waugh meant to do with this one.