This is a war novel which focuses on the home front rather than on active service. It is 1939 and the village of Lambscot is facing the threat and then the certainty of war. At the centre of the novel is Colonel Heron, a widower who lost an arm in the First World War and who lives at Tadpole Hall with his widowed sister, Mrs Drake. Local girls are keener on shop or factory work than domestic service and retaining servants is a particular difficulty for Mrs Drake, who is described as
“a very shrewd, practical organiser, if she had not had the knack of setting people’s backs up wherever she went.”
She decides that refugees are the answer and so Tadpole Hall acquires an Austrian couple, Lisel and Heinrich Hahn, as cook and general manservant. Other outsiders, in the form of evacuees from London, also arrive as do the Colonel’s daughters.
At first we are presented with a gentle, affectionate satire of village life, complete with gossiping women (of all social strata), overbearing organisers, slovenly maids, people worried about the war but more immediately about having to accept evacuees and so on. But the impending war and the presence of the refugees brings a darker tone and this mix of tones continues through the novel.
It opens and finishes with planes from the nearby aerodrome flying over the countryside. At the beginning the Colonel Heron thinks of them as
“..fledgling birds of war. He wished himself young again to go hawking with them.”
At the end he thinks
“One of these days I suppose they’ll smash my house down and that’ll be the end of me.”
The Colonel is a quietly attractive figure, reserved, solitary and sensitive. He leaves his sister to manage the household but when he discovers that she has been bullying the women in the village to take evacuees while not intending to have any at Tadpole Hall, he stands up to her. Alone of the characters, he realises that his world is going to be “smashed up” and that after the war things will be very different for his class.
Lisel is the other main character. In Vienna the Hahns were wealthy but have lost everything. Unlike Lisel, Heinrich is a Jew; she stayed with him and with great determination brought them to safety. He lacks her resilience and her ability to adapt to a menial role. She is warm and engaging, a natural homemaker and superb cook who works hard while her husband becomes increasingly depressed and fearful of being interned.
Home and what it means is very important. The Hahns have lost theirs and, while Lisel can create a new one, Heinrich can’t and in the end he kills himself.The evacuees have lost theirs temporarily. The children love exploring the countryside but the mothers, yearning for shops and cinemas, return to London.
By contrast the inhabitants of Lambscot are very rooted there, though often in ways which look to the past rather than the future. There is Miss Pigeon, her tiny cottage crammed with family memorabilia, and Lady Peacock, widow of a once famous painter, who has kept their house unchanged as a kind of shrine. At the end, Colonel Heron, in love with Lisel, tells her, “This shall be your home.”
This sense of home is reinforced by a strong sense of place. There are vivid descriptions of the countryside and of country occupations, such as harvesting apples.
And home is worth defending. This is not a work of overt propaganda but there is a message that England (always England, not Britain) is up against something which must be defeated. At this stage the horror of Nazism is known only through the experiences of the Hahns and others like them but several people comment that refugees could say anything and anonymous letters are sent suggesting the Hahns are spies.
The Colonel is more openminded. Lisel tells him what happened in Vienna and he has a slightly uncomfortable talk with Heinrich about their experiences in the First World War (they were both officers, on opposite sides but on different fronts – to the Colonel’s relief). Both tell him that England is in danger of being complacent, of not understanding what they are up against.
This conversation between the two men illustrates neatly the mixed tone of the novel and how good the writer is with these social details. The content is deeply serious but there is amusement in Colonel Heron’s social unease at talking with an Austrian ex-officer who is now his servant.
Observant readers will note the pervasive bird imagery. The Colonel, a keen birdwatcher, compares the planes to birds and all the characters have the names of birds. I’m not sure what significance this has. Some names seem to reflect something of the character’s personality: for example, Colonel Heron could be described as rather grey and solitary and Mrs Drake has the name of a male bird, presumably to emphasize her supposedly ” masculine” qualities (clearly a woman who in a different world would have had a proper job). But I have no idea why the doctor should be called Siskin or the gardener, Bullfinch.
I enjoyed this novel very much. Ashton treats her characters with sympathy while casting an entertaining satirical eye over them but she also deals effectively with the serious side of the story. Heinrich’s sense of powerlessness and isolation and his gradual descent into paranoia are convincingly portrayed and Lisel’s distress is very moving. The mix of mild social satire and seriousness seems incongruous at first but points up the narrowmindedness of the less appealing characters. And no doubt people at the time continued to laugh at their neighbours’ foibles, while worrying about the war.