I was on a much-rehearsed trawl of the labyrinthine bookshop when I spotted it. A neat green-cloth country volume of the type churned out in their thousands in the 1940s and ’50s – years of hardship but also ones of optimism and dreams of a better future. I read the faded spine. A House in the Country by Ruth Adam, published by the Country Book Club, 1957.
Now this is the kind of thing I like. My bookshelves sag under the collective weight of H. J. Massingham, Adrian Bell, Ronald Blythe and Cecil Torr, but Ruth Adam was new to me. ‘This is a cautionary tale, and true,’ the book begins:
Never fall in love with a house. The one we fell in love with wasn’t even ours. If she had been, she would have ruined us just the same. We found out some things about her afterwards, among them what she did to that poor old parson, back in the eighteen- seventies. If we had found them out earlier . . . ? It wouldn’t have made any difference. We were in that maudlin state when reasonable argument is quite useless. Our old parents tried it. We wouldn’t listen. ‘If you could only see her,’ we said.
As the Second World War draws to a close, a group of six friends pool resources in order to rent a sizeable House in the Country – capital H, capital C. Their list of requirements is exacting. It has to be ‘one of those houses that’s been built bit by bit, for hundreds of years’. It has to have acres of land and dozens of outhouses. As it turns out, such a house does exist, a pretty, rambling but rather rundown Tudor manor house in deepest Kent. And so they move in.
Adam’s gentle, witty and compelling story is peopled by many memorable characters, especially old Howard, the gardener and general factotum. He had been with the old colonel, the manor’s late owner, since he was a pageboy in buttons, and he is the beating heart of the place, its wily and loyal retainer.
The colonel had a daughter, and it isn
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