The act of reading ... begins on a flat surface, counter or page, and then gets stirred and chopped and blended until what we make, in the end, is a dish, or story, all our own.
— Adam Gopnik

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June 23, 2016

The Half-Crown House

The Great Entrance to Fountain Court had been one of 'Sensibility' Hornbeam's notions. Returning fron the Grand Tour in 1780 and remembering Roman gardens, he had planted a ring of yews round a circle of gravel, cut embrasures in the hedge for twelve antique statues and called the place the Grove of the Muses, Apollo, himself was mounted upon a high pedestal in the centre of the gravel, striking his lyre. Colonel 'Waterloo' Hornbeam half a century later had respected these arrangements, which included a pair of wrought-iron gates and an imposing portico, approached by a double flight of steps. His Waterloo wing ran down the east side of the old house, fronting the rose-garden; but here on the north front there was no colour, only a sober effect of dark green and apricot-coloured stone, like an eighteenth-century print. The yew hedge in two centures had grown up to a height of thirty feet and was supposed to be the second finest in England, but it had so overshadowed the courtyard that Apollo never saw the sun.  His Twelve Muses were shabby and neglected old maids, with lichen-spotted tunics and broken noses. Clio had lost her book and Erato her Lydian flute, buskined Thalia had only had half an actor's mask. Terpsichore, dancing, held up stunps instead of arms, Urania brooded upon a shattered globe. The white gravel was weedy nowadays, the great hedge itself ragged and badly clipped, going brown in patches. ..
      People had been coming and going there for centuries, Coaches and carriages, black, scarlet and yellow, had swung around the circle, and drawn up at the steps, powdered footmen had banged the knocker, ladies had descended in their silken gowns to pay calls, drink tea, dine or dance; young gentlemen had ridden up on horseback; family brides had run down the steps through showers of rice and rose-petals, coffins had come out unsteadily on the shoulders of mutes, and been pushed into wagon or hearse. Visitors had come and gone, leaving a crop of family stories; how Mr. Pitt in a fit of gout, had stayed for three nights on his way to Bath, how the Duchess of Kent and little Princess Victoria had broken their journey to Anglesey; how Dr. Jenner has ridden over from Berkeley in his brass-buttoned blue coat to vaccinate the whole household, how Miss Jane Austen, slender and silent, had once been brought over to tea by her rich relations from Stoneleigh Abbey. The Iron Duke had ridden up once to inspect a volunteer parade in the park, Lord Beaconsdield has addressed a conservative fete, King Edward the Seventh had driven up in the first Daimler ever to crunch the gravel.  ...
... 'That was in 1903,' said Leaf, straightening his bent shoulders. 'I was just twenty then. The photograph's in the library still.' He smiled faintly, remembering the old days; then raised hs head and listened. Down the lane came the sound of wheels, a horn was blown, and big red motor-coach turned in at the gates. 'Here comes somebody,' said old Harry, looking pleased. 'That'll be the Women's Institute from Wilchester; they booked a party. We can get them done early.  You run off into the garden, m'lord; they haven't paid to see you.' So Victor went off to the glass-houses, where he spent an enjoyable afternoon with Jean the landgirl, fitting hyacinth bulbs into bowls, stuffing fibre around them, spilling the watercan over the floor, dirty and happy.
After Ali introduced us to Helen Ashton earlier this year, I was so happy to find that the library had many of her books on its shelves. There was something immediately appealing about a British novelist who had written about a country house, and about Jane Austen, and now that I've read my first of her books, it's always nice to have a first impression confirmed ;) (Thank you, Ali!)

I loved the way this novel was constructed. It takes place on one late October day in the 1950s, at Fountain Court, a (literally) crumbling English country house, the ancestral home of the almost also crumbling Hornbeam family and their elderly servants.  As senile Lady Hornbeam lies in bed, cared for by her loyal Swiss lady's maid, her granddaughter Henrietta (a woman just turned thirty) and Henrietta's cousin Charles, maimed in the Second World War, try to hold on by opening the house to visitors (for a half-crown fee, Queen Henrietta Marie's bedroom and the gardens extra} and growing and selling vegetables.

It's the last 'show-day' of the season, so we see the house as tourists see it, and as family members and servants describe it to them.  At the same time, it's a day with unexpected significance for the Hornbeams. An American businessman who is in love with Henrietta is coming to lunch with his British art dealer to consider purchasing a ugly but valuable family portrait; a family friend, Lady Linden, is bringing her houseguests (a bored niece and her school-aged daughter) to tour the house and have tea, and Henrietta's nephew, the nine-year-old Fifth Baron Hornbeam, is coming to live at Fountain Court, now that his mother has remarried.  All of this gives the author room for pages and pages of grumbling tourists, and wonderful, rambling descriptions of the crumbling house and the fortunes and misfortunes of the Hornbeam ancestors, often told through the objects they left behind -- all weaving together, and set against the great difficulties and uncertainties of whether the old house can be kept standing. With all of this, it's a house, and a family, and a novel, that I loved spending time with.

And the introduction to my American edition says that 'this is another of the Wilchester chronicles,' listing the four earlier books {all published in the 1940s, and all but one in the library's catalog). Wilchester is the neighboring village, so I can't tell if the Hornbeams or the house are prominent in them, but I'm looking forward to finding out.

The Half-Crown House, by Helen Ashton
Dodd, Mead & Company, 1956
Source:  Boston Athenaeum


JoAnn said...

You're lucky to have access to such a well-stocked library! There is nothing by the author in our library's collection... even through ILL.

Audrey said...

I am very, very lucky...and it suits me to live in a dusty old city with lots of dusty old books. :)

Claire (The Captive Reader) said...

I read this earlier in the year and really enjoyed it. I've only read two of her books (this and Bricks and Mortar) but look forward to tracking down more.

Thank you for visiting!

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