I loved Alison Uttley’s books as a child. She was such a wonderful storyteller, and she wrote about the natural so beautifully. I was particularly fond of Little Grey Rabbit, and the story of ‘Little Grey Rabbit’s Washing Day’ is the first beloved book that hearing her name brings to mind.
It was only recently that I learned that Alison Uttley wrote two novels for adults, and when I found that the library had copies in reserve stock I had to order one in to try.
The opening of the ‘When All Is Done’, first published in 1945, was so promising. I looked forward to a lovely story of a house, its history and the lives it saw.
“The house stirred in its sleep and stretched its ancient limbs. It slowly awakened and raised the covering of darkness and the web of years from its body. Its old heart beat so loudly that it seemed to be a heavy pulsating rhythm slowing out to the fields, rising to the hills, shaking the trees to music in the surrounding woods. The air vibrated with its waves and a fine dust sifted from the beams of the great barns alongside the building. It breathed deeply, and a sigh came from its antique roots, from those strong foundations that were part of the earth itself.”
The descriptions were lengthy, but they were simple, they were beautiful, and the story looked rather promising.
In an English farmhouse, in the 18th century, an old woman, Charity, lay in her bed, gravely ill. He son, William, sat by her bedside, and in a moment she asked him to fetch her granddaughter, his niece to her. He protested, because it was night and because the child, Virginia, was very young, but she was insistent and he felt that he had to comply.
Charity wanted Virginia to hear the house speaking, because she was the custodian of the house, she understood it as few others did, and she knew that Virginia was the same as her, that Virginia would inherit her role when she was gone.
William didn’t understand, but Charity and Virginia did.
In time Charity recovers from her illness, and the story follows her for the rest of her life, and it follows Virginia from the beginning to the end of hers.
Charity loves her home, she has become part of its fabric, and she finds great joy in being its custodian and the matriarch of her family for the rest of her days; and as she grows up Virginia discovers the same joy. In her home, in the world around her, in the changing seasons, in the way that lives are lived, have been lived, for generations. Life pulls Virginia away from the farm, but it always brings her back. She will, like Charity, be its custodian, and her life and the life of the house will be knotted together.
Its a simple tale and sometimes it is wonderfully effective, when lives are changing and when the descriptions are pitch perfect.
“Autumn came, with its rich heady smells of walnut leaves decaying on the paths, of moss damp by the troughs, of golden bracken bending to the earth ready for its death. It was the time of colour and sadness, of regrets for the old and longings for the young, of preparation for winter and home-keeping. But winter seemed far away on that bright day when Virginia started her new education at the night school. Earth showed her bravest colours, a last flaunting beauty, before the winds destroyed so much. The fields glittered with sparkling drops, the woods were clothed in splendour. High on the hilltops the mountain ashes were loaded with orange clusters, each berry sent out its own light to add to the conflagration in the woods. The beech trees were ruddy gold, the silver birches were filigree of delicate gold, the blackberry trailer made crimson arches trough which rabbits and field-mice ran to their holes.”
But there are times, particularly at the start of the story, when it is weighed down by too much description, the same things were described over and over again. It was lovely, but it was too much, and I grew weary of reading of the same domestic details, the same copper pans in the kitchen …
In the end though the story came through; a simple charming old-fashioned story.
Just one thing undermined that story; it was never quite clear what drew Virginia back to the house. Alison Uttley suggests that it is the house itself, she suggests that it is something more mystical, she suggests that it is simply fate, but she doesn’t commit. This would have been a much better book if she had.
At least, it would have been if she had chosen fate – that would have worked – the house – that could have been wonderful, especially if she had written a little more about its past and its future – but not the mystical. The writing about the mystical is very weak; the kind of writing that drove Stella Gibbons to write ‘Cold Comfort Farm.’
And so I have to say that ‘When All is Done’ is not Alison Uttley’s best work, but I am glad that I read it, because it captured the country and the lives that were lived in it quite beautifully.
“Hawthorns were geometry trees, said Richard, and he showed Virginia the right-angled branches, and the straight lines of boughs. Soft warm showers and a burst of hot sun had brought forth the miracle of creation. It was almost unbelievable that the earth could move its old limbs so quickly and bring out such hidden treasures from under its dark brown shawl. The spotted curling sheaths of cuckoo pint, the airy wind flowers, the clusters of primroses suddenly flew out of the earth, the cowslip buds raised their palest green knobs from the stiff loam of the pasture, and over all the rich scent of the larches drifted, sweeter and more aromatic than any smell for the farm’s pleasure.”