I’ve always loved stories spun around houses. That’s why, when I was looking for Lucy M Boston’s memoirs in my library’s catalogue, I was distracted by the title ‘Yew Hall.’
And then I was intrigued, when I discovered that it was Lucy M Boston’s first published work, and that she had described it as, “a poem to celebrate my love of the house”.
And the opening chapters live up to that wonderful description. An unnamed narrator speaks of her home with such intimacy and such love. She knows its history, the changes that have come and gone over the years, and she knows, indeed she is part of, the very fabric of her beloved home.
“I have called my house a barn, an ark, a ship, a boulder, a wood. All the while I am trying to find the important thing to say about it, but it distracts me with a jostle of different attributes, none of which can be left out. The sea, for instance, is a mass of cold and heavy water. I believe that if my house were magnified as big as the sea it would show as much sparkle, as much rhythm and vitality, as much passion as the sea. It is a natural thing, made out of the true earth. The walls are three foot thick, not of solid stone, but of quarried stone brought here by barge and laid piece over piece with the grain always lying as it lay in the cliff face, but here with seams of air between the stone. Only the jambs, arches, sills and angles are in cut stone. The rough is plastered inside and out with loose old sandy plaster, warm and friendly, if rather ‘crimbling’ as the old men say locally. The effect is rather like an airy cave, in which the Trafalgar chairs with their carved ropes look at home like sailors, and the dangling lustres of the candelabra, like ripples, throw shaky lights over the ceiling. The walls are not heavy, having so much air in them. They rest easily on the earth and grow to the impressive height of the roof-tree without force, not locked and rigid like bricks and mortar, nor steelbound and plugged with sterile composition. They breathe around me. Sitting alone here for the longest series of wordless winter nights I feel neither shut in nor shut off, but rather like the heart inside living ribs.”
I understood, that house came to life for me.
But I learned little of the woman herself. Not her name. Not whether she was a spinster or a widow. Just that she loved culture, her house, her garden, and that was all she needed in her life.
She wasn’t alone in her home; she had tenants in a small apartment that she let out. New tenants. They were a young couple who had lived abroad, and needed a place to settle while they looked for a more permanent home.
Lucy loved fashion, parties, company, and she wasn’t one of life’s home-makers. She was spoiled, she was indolent, but she was good natured. She thought Yew Hall would be a wonderful place for parties, if only her landlady would agree.
Mark indulged his wife, but he was more practical. He was fascinated by Yew Hall and its history and spent many evenings in conversation with our narrator, while his wife flicked through the latest glossy magazines.
His only concern was how his wife would cope when he was called up for military service. He knew it was inevitable; she refused to acknowledge that it was possible.
I’d thought that there might be difficulties between the two women of Yew Hall, but there were none. Each accepted the other’s eccentricities, secure in the knowledge that they knew what was really important in life.
And there was the contrast: tradition and continuity on one had, and modernity and change on the other.
There was a crisis to come though, I was sure of it. There was something in the tone of the story that told me.
Mark’s brother, Roger, came to stay. The two brothers were very different but they got on well. But there was tension between Lucy and Roger.
The custodian of the house looked on. She liked Roger, he shared her love of art and the theatre, but she could see that something was amiss. That there was family history that of course she knew nothing about. And it was none of her business.
If only she had realised how bad things were. There was a sign, but she didn’t see it, and she could do nothing as events played out in a tragic finale.
I was held first by the wonderful evocation of the house and then, as the story shifted by a very subtle undercurrent that told me something was going to happen. Wonderful, wonderful writing, and there was a lovely touch near the end that would have told me, even had I not known, that this was a debut that would be the precursor to greater things.
The characters and the relationships were simply drawn, but I could believe in them. The plot was slight, but it was enough.
What didn’t quite come through was what I thought the author wanted to convey, that the house and the land would go on while lives came and went. I took the point, but it could have been made better.
The writing though was quite lovely, and that’s what I’m going to remember. And the house, of course.