My rating: 9/10. Because I am now completely in thrall to Anna Buchan’s small but completely believable literary world, and I so greatly enjoyed spending time with the Rutherfurds and their ever-widening range of acquaintances.
There was only one spot in the whole rambling length of Eliotstoun where Katharyn Eliot felt that she could be sure of being left at peace for any time. That was the small circular room at the end of the passage which contained her bedroom and Tim’s dressing-room; it was called for some unknown reason “Jane’s Parlour.”
No one knew who Jane was. There was no mention of any Jane in the family records: Elizabeths in plenty, Elspeths, Susans, Anns, Carolines, Helens, but never a Jane. But whoever she was Katharyn liked to think that she had been a virtuous soul, for there was always a feeling of peace, a faint, indefinable scent as of some summer day long dead in that rounded room with its three narrow windows (each fitted with a seat and a faded cushion), its satiny white paper, discoloured here and there by winter’s damp, on which hung coloured prints in dark frames. A faded Aubusson carpet lay on the floor, and in one corner stood a harp beside a bureau, and a beautiful walnut settee – these were Jane’s. A capacious armchair (Tim’s) was at one side of the fire, and opposite it, a large writing-table which was Katharyn’s. There was also an overcrowded bookcase, and a comfortable sofa: that was all there was in the room.
It was here she worked, for in the infrequent quiet times of a busy life Katharyn wrote – and published: it was here she read the writers she loved best, old writers like Donne and Ford and Webster from whom she was never tired of digging gloomy gems…
When Caroline was born Katharyn had made a rule that children and dogs were not to be admitted into Jane’s Parlour, and when Tim protested, replied with steely decision that there must be one peaceful place in the house. Before ten years had passed there were five children at Eliotstoun, and an ever-increasing army of dogs, so that, as Tim acknowledged, it was well to have one place where people’s feet were free of them.
And, because it was forbidden territory it naturally became the Mecca of the family, to enter it their most ardent desire…
This book interweaves a number of lives, most of which we are familiar with from The Proper Place and The Day of Small Things; Jane’s Parlour is very much a continuation of what has come before versus a stand-alone story; the three books belong together to give an ever-widening view of the living tapestry created by the author from her ever more intricately twined strands of individuals’ lives.
Here are Katharyn and Timothy Eliot, and their five children; Alison Lockhart and her beloved nephew George; Barbara and Andrew Jackson, Barbara in the role of antagonist and Andy smoothing down the feathers his wife continually ruffles; a cameo or two by Lady Jackson herself in all her vivid glory; Nicole and Lady Jane Ruthurfurd; and many more.
The main strand of this novel concerns a fairly typical love story, but there is much quiet activity going on at the same time, and we are treated to a series of interconnected vignettes which keep us up to date on what has happened since we last spent time in this lovingly created world. Virtue is rewarded, the wicked are put – for the most part – sternly in their place, joy is embraced and grief accepted. As usual, not much happens, but at the same time everything happens; much like most of our lives if we are lucky enough to live them in a peaceful country in between-great-events times.
The First World War is now long past, and is not often referred to, but the gathering clouds of what will be the Second World War are very much in evidence; this novel was published in 1937 and is a clearly and sensitively drawn period piece which captures the mood of those last few sunset years of relative peace before darkness once again descends.
If you enjoyed The Proper Place and The Day of Small Things, this is a definite must-read. The three novels belong together, and if you can get your hands on the posthumously published anthology-biography-memoir Farewell to Priorsford, you will find therein the first eight chapters of a fourth book, The Wintry Years, which follows the same characters into World War Two. Sadly, Anna Buchan died before that last novel was finished, but those chapters are perfectly composed, letting us turn away from our fictional friends with the feeling that their lives will continue somewhere even though out of our ken; truly the mark of a good author’s skill in world building.