The Soldier and the Gentlewoman by Hilda Vaughan

This story of the aftermath of the Great War, Hilda Vaughan’s fifth novel, was published 1932, and it was later adapted for the stage and for the screen. It was a wonderful drama on the page, told with such passion and conviction, and I am sure that it would have held theatre goers and cinema goers just it held me.

There are moments – particularly towards the end of the story – when subtlety might have served it better than passion and conviction, and so I couldn’t love this book as I hoped I would, but I found much to love, more than enough to make me glad that I found the book.

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It begins with the soldier. Captain Richard Einon-Thomas returned from the war as the owner of Plas Einon, a Welsh country estate that he had inherited from a distant cousin. He looked forward to a quiet country life; he felt he had earned good luck after what he had gone through in the war, after losing his youth and his strength; and he imagined bringing home a pretty young bride, and inviting all of his London friends to say.

There was a problem though. The property has been entailed, that was the only reason why it had coe to him, and his arrival would make three women homeless. Two of them had accepted and understood the situation. One hadn’t. Gwenllian loved her home and the tradition she had been raise in, she had kept the estate going when her brothers went to war and when her father’s health failed, and she had even managed to clear the mortgage that her father had taken out. Now she was no longer young and, because they were gone, because she was a woman, she would lose everything.

It was so easy to understand her feelings, and to appreciate the depth of her understanding of the estate, its tenants, its business, its community. Easy too to understand her feelings about her cousin’s more casual ways.

In time he gained a little understanding, and he realised that the estate needed her. They negotiated a compromise.

That was a wonderful idea in principle, but if it was to work it needed two very different people to find common ground, to understand each others position, to meet each other half way. He tried, but she didn’t.

Gwenllian’s love for the estate grew into obsession. All that mattered was the estate and its future. She saw Richard as an obstacle to that.

The story ended in a terrible tragedy.

It was gripping from start to finish.

The writing was wonderful: the estate was so vividly drawn, the characters lived and breathed, and their feelings were palpable. The issues that Hilda Vaughan raised, about inheritance, about the position of women, about class and tradition, about the consequences of war, were interesting and important.

But I’m a little sorry that the story played out as it did; that Gwenllian became a monster and that Richard did nothing. It was wonderfully executed, I loved the way that my understanding and my sympathies changed, but I couldn’t help thinking that if only she has been allowed to understand a little more, if only he had spoken and acted just a little more, there was a better – and a more credible – resolution to be reached.

I do think this is a very good book – and I’m pleased that Honno has more of Hilda Vaughan’s work in print for me to investigate.

I know that she can write powerfully of her country and her times; I know that she can write psychological drama; I’d just like to find that there’s a book where she balances those two things a little better than she did in this book. Because that book could be very, very special ….

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