It was chance that led me to discover C. H. B. Kitchin last year. I read Streamers Waving, one of his earliest novels and I discovered that he was an author with wit, understanding, and such lovely style. that book left me eager to read more of his work, and I was so pleased to discover a wonderfully diverse range of titles being reissued, some by the wonderful Valancourt Books and others as Faber Finds.
The simplicity of ‘The Auction Sale’ called me first. It’s a small, quiet story, and it tells the story of an auction over three days, just before the war. The contents of a country house were being sold; because the owner had died, he had left the home to his sister, and she had decided to sell up.
Miss Alice Elton was attending the sale, because she had many happy memories of Ashleigh Place, just outside the small town of Markenham. She had been secretary to Mr Durrant, and she had become companion and dear friend to his wife. That part of her life was over, but she remembered it with such love. For the people for she knew, and for the timeless beauty of the house itself. She just wanted to see it again, to remember, and to bid on one of two lots that held particular memories.
Miss Elton’s memories were wrapped around the story of the three days of the sale quite beautifully. Mr Kitchin captured the proceedings at the auction – the differing styles of the two auctioneers, the curious locals, the professional dealers – so very well. And as lots came and went Miss Elton remembered so many things.
She remembered her friend’s concern for the uncle who brought the house, and for her troubled orphan nephew who came to live their for a time. And she remembered her friend’s relationship with the lovely Mr Osmund Sorenius; a relationship that might have been a love affair, had they both not had an instinctive loyalty to their respective spouses. Miss Elton had been friend to both, and a chaperone maybe.
As I read ‘The Auction Sale’ two other books and a film came to mind. The love of the house reminded me of Vita Sackville-West’s The Heir; the stirring of memories brought Ruby Ferguson’s Lady Rose and Mrs Memmary to mind; and the almost love affair had echoes of ‘Brief Encounter.’ That was lovely, but as I read I came to love ‘The Auction Sale’ for its own sake.
Mr Kitchin writing was subtle and sensitive; he so clearly understood, his style suited his story perfectly; and he brought the house and all of those who passed through, and the auction and all of those present, to life.
I appreciated the attention to detail, the contrast between the quietness of the past and the liveliness of the auction, and way the changes at the house were set against the changes that the coming war would bring. Most of all I appreciated Miss Elton. She might have been a tragic figure, but she wasn’t; she he had lost much, she had little, but she accepted that life had changed, and would continue to change, and she carried on.
I was so pleased that she had two successful bids, and that she won a painting and a bowl. They had little monetary value, but they carried particular memories.
The story ended at the end of the third day of the auction. Miss Elton collected her purchases, and she took them home.
It was lovely to meet her, to attend the auction, and to be trusted with her memories.