How could the start of the month come round so quickly? The December Six Degrees of Separation meme (see Books are My Favourite and Best for an explanation) starts off with Judy Blume’s Are You There God? It’s me, Margaret. I was a little too old for Judy Blume’s Young Adult books, which started off in the mid 1970s, and the whole Judy Blume phenomenon passed me by. But it did start me thinking about the book that I loved most as an adolescent, and how that book has been reflected in my later adult reading.
The book that I loved most in early secondary school was Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle. It’s a story of a young girl and her older sister living in a racketty old Big House, with their author father suffering from writer’s block. In my own family, we never bought books, and so I reborrowed this book from the school library again and again. Now that I actually do buy books, I have not one but two copies on my bookshelves, but I’m a little apprehensive about re-reading it in case it doesn’t live up to my memories. It was the start of my love of Big House books, which is the ‘degree of separation’ that joins all my books.
I read L.P. Hartley’s The Go-Between when I was in H.S.C. (i.e. Year 12). I just loved the summer 1900 setting of this book where a young boy, sent for the summer to a friend’s Big House, becomes an intermediary in an illicit love affair between his friend’s sister and a nearby tenant farmer. There’s a similar feeling of a young adolescent out of his depth emotionally, entangled in other people’s affairs and the feeling of impending doom.
These same themes came up in Ian McEwan’s Atonement, which was made into a lush film starring Keira Knightley. Again, we have a young girl in another Big House, and another illicit love affair. The same feelings of summer, emotional immaturity and guilt come through in this book, too. This book, though, has three separate time periods, although the implications of an innocent but erroneous childhood action reverberate through a lifetime.
There are a number of similar books that I have read since writing this blog. Graham Swift’s Mothering Sunday is only small, at 132 pages, and dealing with just one day – Mothering Sunday – when the hired help in post WWI Big Houses are allowed to go home to visit their families. But housemaid Jane is orphaned, and so spends the day with her lover, Paul, the son of a neighbouring Big House family. It’s a perfectly formed, tightly told little story.
Big Houses, tied as they are to the arcane inheritance arrangements of the aristocracy tend to elicit manipulative relationships and long-held grudges on the part of the disinherited. Clare Clark’s We That are Left is set in a postWWI Big House, once again with the outsider child brought into the midst of messy upper class family arrangements. We learn in the opening pages that the outsider child ends up owning the Big House and the narrative thread of the novel is just how he achieved it.
For me, Big House novels are inevitably set in England, although there are probably plenty of Big Houses in other countries too (all of a sudden Gone With the Wind or The Leopard spring to mind). What about Australian Big House novels? The houses may not be so big, and certainly not of similar antiquity, but Patrick White’s The Eye of the Storm is set in a Big Enough House, where two adult children return to their mother’s affluent house, intent on putting her into a nursing home so that their inheritance is not gobbled up by her in-home-care nursing arrangements. I really don’t know if I even understood this book, which is often the way with me with Patrick White.
And so, I find myself laughing at the idea of starting off with Judy Blume and ending up with Patrick White. Could any two authors possibly be more different from each other?