The Heir by Vita Sackville-West

The Cornish Library Service has lost its green Virago copy of The Heir. I was so disappointed when that news arrived by email. I had felt so virtuous when I placed my order; I was controlling my book shopping and supporting the library!

I was offered a 1973 edition instead. I was less than thrilled, but I accepted, telling myself that reading the words was much more important than holding a particular edition.

When the book arrived I was delighted with it. Yes it was a 1970s edition, but it was a facsimile of the first edition, from 1922. The author’s name was shown not as Vita, but as Victoria Sackville-West, and though I had lost that accompanying novella, Seducers in Ecuador, that would have come with the Virago edition I had gained a quartet of short stories that I knew nothing about.

I had found a publisher. This facsimile edition came from Cederic Chivers Ltd of Bath – book-binders, book restorers and paper conservators – at the request of the London & Home Counties Branch of the Library Association.

“This book has been out of print for a number of years, and in response to continued demand we are delighted to be able to reprint such a fine piece of writing.”

It was a lovely reminder that rediscovering old books is nothing new, it’s been going on for years and years. And long may it continue. After all even Jane Austen fell out of print for a little while …

The list of titles published in the same series was a delight. I saw so many familiar names, from Vera Brittain to Barbara Comyns to Robert Graves to Kate O’Brien to Winifred Watson … and, would you believe, Dorothy Whipple sitting next to Baron Von Richthofen …

But it was The Heir that I wanted to read, and it was every bit as wonderful as I had been led to believe.

It began with the end of an era.

“Miss Chase lay in her immense red silk four-poster that reached as high as the ceiling. Her face was covered by a sheet, but she had a high, aristocratic nose, it raised the sheet into a ridge, ending in a point. Her hands could also be distinguished beneath the sheet, folded across her chest like the hands of an effigy; and her feet, tight together like the feet of an effigy raised the sheet into two further points at the bottom of the bed. She was eighty-four years old, and she had been dead for twenty-four hours.”

Miss Chase has no close family and so her estate came to a distant cousin. A solicitor from Wolverhampton. He had never met his cousin, and he had never visited Blackboys, her Elizabethan manor house, set in the Kent countryside, that became his.

It wouldn’t be his for long if the solicitors has their way. They told him that the estate was heavily mortgaged, that it would never pay his way, that the only thing to so was sell up, and then maybe he could go home a little wealthier than he had been when he left it. They had all the facts and figures at their disposal, everything that they said made perfect sense, but Chase rather resented it.

“The house lay in the hollow at the bottom of a ridge of wooded hills that sheltered it from the north, but the garden was upon the slope of the hill, in design quite simple; a central walk divided the square garden into halves, eased into very flat, shallow steps, and outlined by a low stone coping. A wall surrounded the whole garden. To reach the garden from the house, you crossed a little footbridge over the moat, at the bottom of the central walk. This simplicity, so obvious, yet, like the house, so satisfying, could not possibly have been otherwise ordered; it was married to the lie of the land. It flattered Chase with the delectable suggestion that he, a simple fellow, could have conceived and carried out the scheme as well as had the architect.”

Blackboys was home, and its faded grandeur gave him beauty, comfort, and a place in the world, a point in history. He came to realise that slowly, as he walked through galleries full of family portraits, as he looked across beautiful gardens towards rolling hills, as he sat, peacefully in his  wood-pannelled library.

It was lovely to watch, to understand, to know that the house belonged to the land and that Chase belonged to the house.

I could see it, perfectly realised, because all of the right details were there. The house, the grounds, the countryside, lived and breathed.

The Heir is subtitled ‘A Love Story’ and I watched that love story grow, between Chase and the home that he inherited

It was a joy to read all of this, in prose that was both rich and elegant, and  to have characters and their lives  illuminated so gently and so clearly.

I couldn’t see how the story could be resolved. I knew that Chase couldn’t go back to the life he had before, but I couldn’t see a way for him to hold on to Blackboys.

In the end there was a resolution, a resolution that was right, real and natural.

I really didn’t want to let this one go, but I had to. Luckily, I had those short stories to fall back on.

The Christmas Party was a little gem. Almost the opposite of The Heir, it told the darkly, twisted story of a woman who had been exiled from her home, who had built an unconventional life on her own, and who had finally invited her estranged family to stay.

Her Son was a perceptive and heart-breaking story of a mother who learned that her son had no time for the inheritance, the history that she thought so precious.

Patience and The Parrot were were shorter, but they had their own, quite distinctive, charms.

All four stories were beautifully and perceptively written, revealing different facets of their author.

But, lovely though they were, they couldn’t live up to The Heir. That was the story that captured me, heart and soul … and I think that maybe I will have to order a green Virago copy to keep …

9 responses

  1. I’ve only ever tried to read The Edwardians (which I didn’t enjoy particularly), but this sounds wonderful. I do love the idea of a relationship between a person and a place (and all its heritage).

    • I’ve read mixed reports about The Edwardians (and some of V S-W’s) other books. I suspect she may do better with simple stories closer to home and I haven’t read a bad word about The Heir.

  2. great review – sounds like a book I would love, i think I have only read one Vita sackville West novel. I enjoyed reading your review and… well I don’t suppose i need to tell you what I did then *sigh*

  3. I happen to be waiting for my copy of The Heir & Seducers of Equador to arrive anytime now, so reading your lovely review has just further intensified the anticipation of their arrival!

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