I’ve been wanting to read more of Sheila Kaye-Smith’s work for ages, but because I had a huge choice, after finding what must have once been somebody’s prized collection in a book sale, I wasted far too much time picking books up and down, not quite able to decide which one to read first.
In the end, a beloved author made my mind up for me.
“Have been reading in the half hour before I go to sleep ‘The End of the House of Alard’. Sheila Kaye-Smith is a favorite of mine. She reminds me of George Eliot. But her work is tinged – I had almost said tainted – with the pessimism of most present day writers of power. They reflect their age. It is hard to be hopeful today when one looks at the weltering world.”
From the journal of Lucy Maud Montgomery, November 22, 1923
I tend to agree. The comparison is a little flattering, of course it is, but it goes some way to balancing out the unfairness of Sheila Kaye-Smith being bracketed with many lesser rural novelists of the same period. She was a countrywoman, and that shows in her books, but she does much, much more than tell tales of country folk.
The Alard family could trace their ancestors back to medieval times, but their fortunes were fading. Lord and Lady Alard lived in their grand house, refusing to recognise that the world had changes, and believing that if only their children would make good marriage fortune would favour them and things would – things must – continue as they always had.
Peter became heir when his brother was killed in the was, and found himself caught between marrying for love and marrying for the money he knew the estate desperately needed; George had followed one of the classic paths for a second son, joining the priesthood and settling into the family living; Gervase, the youngest brother believed that the world was changing, decided that he must break with tradition and follow his own calling, even though he knew his family would disapprove …
Doris, the eldest daughter, had never married, telling herself that her parents needed her at home, and becoming set in her – and their – ways; Mary had married but she was unhappy, wanting to leave her husband but aware of the consequences and the social disgrace would follow; and Jenny was young and headstrong, she wasn’t going to make the same mistakes her sisters made, she was going to follow her heart …
The story moves back and forth between them all, touching on so many themes: family, love, duty, tradition, society, change, faith. There is much about faith – as there is in most if not all of Sheila Kaye-Smiths’s books – thoughtfully woven onto the story, a natural part of many of her characters lives. Details of lives lived on a country estate are woven in as naturally. I never for one moment doubted that the author knew – and believed – everything that she wrote about.
The story touches on Judaism as well as Christianity. Peter’s bride, Vera, is Jewish and it is mentioned often – Sheila Kaye-Smith writes beautifully, and she can be wonderfully subtle, but occasionally she labours a point. It is to her great credit though that Vera takes a great pride in her Jewishness, seeing it as something that makes her special, and that is never questioned. There were a few small details that made me suspect that her character was inspired by the author’s friend and sometime co-writer, G B Stern.
Above all this is a story of characters and relationships. Each and every character is beautifully drawn, complex and fully realised; the multitude of different relationships between them are caught perfectly too. They all lived and breathed, but it was in the dialogues that they were most alive. I remember Jenny, stridently making her case for doing just what she wanted to do; Gervase and George talking about faith; Mary quietly explaining why she couldn’t bear to go on with her husband ….
I was captivated. but I have to acknowledge there was something missing. A little more variation, maybe some outside influence – the story seemed to be set in a very closed world – might have made this a great book instead of a very good one. And it maybe needed to be a bigger book set over a rather longer period to allow the characters their stories to shine as brightly as they might.
The characters in the foreground needed to come forward a little. I loved Stella and how she coped when Peter made her decision, and her father who did his best to support her, even though he didn’t quite undestand. Their was as lovely, and believable, a father-daughter realtionship as I can ever remember reading. And the characters who were a little further back deserved more space. At first George seemed uninteresting, but when he spoke about faith, when he was called on as a priest, he came to life and I wished that I could have known him a little better.
This is one of those maddening books that I loved, but at the same time I wished I could have loved it even more. It was a very good book that might have been a great book. And the great book it might have been would made that comparison with Middlemarch entirely right.
And there’s just one more thing I must take issue with: the title. The fact the this was ‘The End of the House of Alard’ made the outcome of certain events rather predictable, and sorrow rather inevitable. The ending veered dangerously close to melodrama, but it was saved by the reactions of those left to cope and carry on.