Mount House and Garden, Alderley, Gloucestershire, England – Marianne North
Every so often, I wonder what it would be like to leave the city behind and go live in a country village. To a place where you could thrown open French doors onto a beautiful garden, where you can’t hear construction noise from dawn until dusk, where cars aren’t clogging the streets, and, ideally, where entry level housing costs are less than the $2.5 million it would take for me to buy in my neighbourhood (a pleasant but simple 1940s bungalow down the street from me has just been listed for $3.7 million, in addition to the tear-down around the corner going for $5.5 million, so I am feeling even more fed up with Vancouver than usual).
But then I remember that all my fantasies about country homes come from books set in England or my travels in Europe, where there really are charming small towns where you can live in easy proximity to civilization, and not in Western Canada, where, with the possible exception of some very expensive island communities, village life is non-existent.
So, as usual, I turn to books to sate my desire for country life. Especially the lovely, everything is cosy and wonderful type of village life that I expect is particular to fiction (as opposed to the everything is stifling and all my neighbours as nasty gossips who know all my business type of village life, that I suspect is more realistic – see Leadon Hill by Richmal Crompton).
Now, my reading is never short on the sort of books where people buy/inherit lovely country homes but this summer seems to be even more overwhelmed by them than usual.
The weakest of my recent sampling – and the only one where the heroine actually purchases a house with her own money – was The House That is Our Own by O. Douglas. After helping her friend Kitty, a charming middle-aged widow, find a flat in London, twenty-nine year old Isobel decides she needs a change of setting. On Kitty’s recommendation, she goes to stay in the Scottish Borders and falls in love with a house there, put up for sale by its young owner who has recently moved to Canada. Isobel throws all caution to the wind and purchases it. My financially responsible self shuddered whenever Isobel blithely commented that she didn’t really have the money to keep the house going in the long run but I read on regardless. It is classic O. Douglas, with lots of lovely, sensible tea-drinking, Shakespeare loving characters of Scottish extraction being lovely together en masse, but I found it numbingly dull. The final act, with a journey to Canada and the inevitable romantic conclusion, was a little more fun but overall not a keeper.
I had been a little hesitant picking up The Scent of Water by Elizabeth Goudge because of its religious overtones but was delighted to discover a beautifully-written story with interesting, developed characters. When fifty-year old Mary Lindsay inherits a country house from a distant relative, she decides to embrace her inheritance recklessly. She retires and sets out, after a lifetime of town living, to enjoy country life. And along with rural quiet and rich new friendships, she finds herself reflecting on the relationships she has had, learning to love even more deeply those who have now passed out of her life. A really lovely book.
The best by far, as will come as no surprise to those who have read Simon and Harriet’s reviews of it, was The Lark by E. Nesbit. When Jane and Lucie are mysteriously withdrawn from school and directed to a small country cottage by their guardian, they imagine all sorts of wonderful possibilities. Instead, they learn their guardian has made unwise investments with their inheritances and regretfully fled the country, but not before doing his best to see that they are as well set up as possible. Between them, they are left with a charming country cottage and an annual income of £500. Jane is determined this is to be an exciting new chapter in their lives, the start of a new adventure – a lark, in fact. Lucie, a delightfully skeptical and level-headed foil for Jane, is not so certain but she is young and hopeful and soon just as excited as Jane about possible ways to improve their lot in life.
First, they settle on a flower stall, before moving on to running a boarding house – all out of a large house located near their cottage. They charm the owner, an eccentric world traveller, into giving his consent to their activities, but cannot shake his nephew John, who hangs round being, in Jane’s eyes at least, irritating despite his usefulness. Flawless businesswomen they are not but the results are perfection. This was written in 1922, two years before Nesbit’s death, and it the sort of book that screams out for a companion volume – one that, sadly, never came.
All in all, a well-chosen trio to meet my desire for stories of country living.