The weekend I’m remembering was the last of the summer, not because summer was over but because the grouse season had begun and the Rossiters would be going north. They both shot. I don’t think Christopher did so with much enthusiasm away from home. Presiding over days when his estate was laid out in all its mellow loveliness for guests come to kill his pheasants was gratifying, but he was really more of a fishing man….
Lil, on the other hand, loved everything about shooting. It was very unusual in those days for a woman to join the guns and she knew what a piquant figure she cut - dainty and lethal in pleated skirts and tight-waisted tweed jackets. She was a genuinely good shot, and it amused her to see how that affronted some men.
So that August weekend at Wychwood had the kind of languor to it of a siesta before a taxing evening. Soon there would be sleeper-cars and sport and then – for some of the house-party – the brisk back-to-work of September. But we were still in the season of moving like somnolent dogs from one patch of shade to another.
commentary: This is a peculiar novel, to match the peculiar ground of the title.
The whole book is set on a fictional country estate in Oxfordshire – posh house, big gardens and grounds and estate, village nearby. The first section starts out in 1661, and is entrancing: it is reported by John Norris, a man who has come to design the gardens and landscape (landskip, it seemed to be called then).
England is in a strange state, as the monarchy has recently been restored after the Civil War, the beheading of Charles I, and the Commonwealth. The Earl of Woldingham has returned to his house. Norris describes what he sees, and wonders what secrets are being revealed, what strange religious practices and old country ways he is coming across. And he makes elaborate plans for the estate. In the opening pages, his Lordship organizes a kind of horse obstacle race in the lines of trees Norris has planted:
I took delight in the performance of this morning. He incorporated my avenue, vegetable and ponderous, into a spectacle of daring grace. But it is true that I find him careless. To him a tree is a thing, which can be replaced by another thing like it. Is it lunacy in me to feel that this is not so?Marvellous images, and then a wonderful way of telling the reader so much about the characters in some short lovely sentences.
Then we move to the same estate, 20th Century, and three different dates – 1961, 1973 and 1989. Events at Wychwood are described – country house weekend, filming, music festival – and then (a long way on) the book goes back to 1665 for a final section.
The extract above is from 1961, and combined many things I liked about the book: good clothes, and the words ‘The weekend I’m remembering was the last of the summer…’ will always pull me in. Various famous people turn up at Wychwood, such as Andy Warhol (unnamed but unmistakeable). Undergraduates come out from Oxford.
There is contrast between the rich and those who are poor, or – even worse – don’t have the right connections. Jobs are being handed out, or are possibilities: broadsheet editors are present. An internship in New York? There is a brief moment where the author seems to understand that not everyone has these opportunities: that one young student has to get a job as soon as he finishes. But he is one of the less nice characters, and soon we sweep on.
The book has shades of many others, sometimes deliberately so as in a mention of Swinbrooke, which means Mitfords to some of us. It resembles both Ian McEwan’s Atonement, and the oeuvre of Alan Hollinghurst. Despite being an unreconstructed old Lefty, I love books about the privileged few, but am also always ready to criticize them, and am always considering whether I feel excluded. This one teetered on the edge: I was impatient that the bolshy villagers needed just to be brought into the fold, to realize that they too could share the wonders of the estate. And perhaps there were too many characters, and a determination to squash everything in, including spying, the Berlin Wall, AIDS.
I could’ve done without the final section – the return to the 1660s – I was ready to be finished before the author was.
But despite all these minor criticisms, it was an intriguing and well-thought-out book. I loved the way the landscape of the estate, the water and the rivers, the avenues and the trees became such a part of the story - not in a nature-loving way, in a structural way. Something very unusual to find in a book.
Peculiar Ground was a very interesting and brave experiment: Lucy Hughes-Hallett is a prize-winning biographer, and she has produced this, her first novel, at the splendid age of 65. I can only approve.