So maybe I'm guilty of perpetuating the myth that things were better a hundred years ago, unless you had the misfortune to be born into the industrial working class. The only thing I can say in my defence is that the Swallowcliffe Hall books are told from the point-of-view of the servants; they were initially aimed at teens and my first heroines are two of the young kitchen- and housemaids who kept great houses running with hours of hard labour. But now I've embarked on writing some more Swallowcliffe stories from the aristocrats' point-of-view, and am having to get to know the house all over again from the other side of the green baize door. One huge joy of the process is the memoirs I've been reading about the Edwardian era, written by the people who lived through it: books such as 'Seventy Years Young,' by Elizabeth, Countess of Fingall, 'Period Piece' by Gwen Raverat, and 'Remember and Be Glad,' by Cynthia Asquith. The last title, in particular, is a beautifully-written tribute to the sheltering family home which offered peace and security after a hectic London season: 'The very timelessness of the place; its memory-stirring unanalysable smell; the anchoring sound of the church clock hourly breaking the silence that was so much more than the mere absence of noise - all these familiar things seemed to enfold me like wings.'
|A plate celebrating Queen Victoria's|
Golden Jubilee in 1887
It's also a book full of humour and wonderful characters: the author's mother, an hospitable hostess and tireless entertainer who found it hard to remember her children had grown up - '"Ices! Cincie, strawberry ices!" she would exclaim when I was far advanced in middle age, in the exact tone of voice in which one says "Din din" or "Walkies" to a dog.' Or her father, who burst out of his study one day to shout at the children, 'For heaven's sake be quiet! Can't you see I'm working like Hell!' Only for everyone to collapse in laughter (including himself) as they realized the book in his hand was a novel by P G Wodehouse.
One thing that emerges from Cynthia Asquith's book is the importance attached to conversation: 'Lively talk - talk which, however unpretentious and spontaneous, would yet be real discussion; never mere chatter.' Without radio, film and TV, let alone the Internet, people had to entertain each other - and they certainly threw some wonderful parties. Perhaps that's what I feel nostalgic for: the peace and quiet to concentrate on what really matters, on family and friends, on the beautiful country in which we live, on the customs and traditions that have shaped what we are today.
Republican or not, maybe tomorrow we should all switch off our phones, let Facebook look after itself and take some time out to celebrate both our roots in history and the branches we're stretching forth, however tentatively, in this exciting and fast-changing world - so much fairer and more tolerant than the past, but so much busier and more complicated too.
|My grandmother and great-uncle Norman, who was killed in the Great War in 1916. |
He appears on the cover of 'Grace's Story'