The Rich House stands at the centre of the quiet, east coast, seaside town of Seagate, and it was lovely to visit, to watch over lives being lived there just before the war.
Archibald Early, a beloved actor of the Edwardian era, had retired to live in the Rich House, and he was a wonderful character, with an important role to play in the story that would unfold, but he was not at the centre of the stage.
Pauline had grown up in Seagate and she still lived at home, with her parents and her aspiring actress sister. She worked in the bank, she was a frequent visitor to the library; she had a boyfriend, Brian, but their relationship seemed to be more of a habit than a romance, and she had more fun with her childhood friend Ted Early, the great actor’s grandson.
Mavis worked in the library, but she was alone in the world: after her parents died, she found comfort in the peace and beauty of the church, and lodgings in the town, with an uncaring landlady, and her rather more friendly daughter.
Pauline and Mavis were both drifting, with no real ambitions, just waiting to become wives and yet mothers. But I found it so easy to become fond of them both, and their concerns became mine.
Both would face crises; first Mavis, when she lost her job and was too shy to ask for help, and then Pauline when she acted thoughtlessly and was harshly judged. That was almost as much plot as there was. There were a few anonymous letters, strange letters that told the recipients that they should appreciate how fortunate they were; not threatening, but unsettling…
But I was happy just to watch lives being lived by the sea.
There was a lovely cast of characters. The men, especially the young men, were a little sketchily drawn, but the women were wonderful. I was particularly taken by Mrs Pask, an elderly widow who didn’t like getting old, but loved to watch the seafront and everything that happened there from a window. She reminded me of my own mother.
There were some lovely scenes, observed fondly but with a knowing eye: an excruciating tea party; Pauline visiting Mrs Pask, who is so pleased to have a visitor, and had gone to some trouble to procure something she knows young people like without her rather controlling companion finding out; Marjorie, Pauline’s sister, establishing her place in the local repertory company; conversations in the library, where a few serious- minded individuals seemed to be the only ones concerned about events in Europe; Mavis settling happily into a new home with new friend, and then realising that they were the doting parents of a young man she rather liked ….
But best of all where the scenes set outside. Pauline loved the seafront and the beach, Mavis loved the countryside, and Stella Gibbons described both beautifully, in prose that was clear and conversational, and illuminated by real understanding.
This is Pauline:
“The cold sand crunched under her feet. No one had walked here for days, and there was a wonderful border of shells and seaweed spread out beyond the rage of the waves; mussels embedded like the dark backs and miniature sea monsters sunk in the sand with water trembling as the wind smote it along their blue pearly cups; tassels of clear red seaweed, ribbons of dark weed and fringes of glistening green, the moss of the sea that rises and falls on the rocks with the washing of the tides…”
And this is Mavis:
“All was quiet. There was no wind. The shadows turned longer and longer and slowly the air cooled a little, but the light of the setting sun was fierce upon the motionless wheat. Mavis turned her head sideways and looked at the clover; the strange sweet little heads stood quite still, hundreds and hundred of them, in colour neither green nor brown nor white, with little leaves like playing-card symbols, veined with shite and as pretty as their flowers. It’s clear, she thought, anything as beautiful as that growing so common everywhere and no one notices it except children.”
I could have happily spent a very long time with those two girls, who looked at their world very much as I looked at mine.
But I do wish the ending had been different. Because this was a book with many wonderful things,just a few disappointments, and it was spoiled by a tacked on ‘ this is what happened next’ ending that really didn’t strike the right note.
I’m glad I read The Rich House, I thought for a long time I was going to say that it really was lovely, but now I have that with a few changes it might have been heavenly…