This Cold Country by Annabel Davis-Goff

published 2002

I don’t like books about squabbling Irish families (‘I can get that at home’) but show me the Protestant Ascendancy in a decaying house in Ireland and I am entranced.

This is the epitome of these books. Daisy, carefully class-delineated as a daughter of the English rectory, marries into a family of Irish poshos who have no money. It is WW2 – she is a Land Girl, he is on active service. She goes to live with his family without him, and with not much clue what is going on. Slowly various events, strands, plots, relationships are revealed.

Yes yes we’ve read it all before – link to a previous sum-up post below – but Annabel Davis-Goff has a marvellous touch, and this one was compelling, entrancing, funny and touching. She wrote a few books at the end of the last century, but apparently not much since, which is a shame. She is the perfect Clothes in Books author – so good on clothes, finances and relationships, three of our favourite things. And, to repeat, she is funny. Also one of my favourite poems – Matthew Arnold’s On Dover Beach – winds through the book.

She also wrote The Fox Walk (2005) – a lovely book, with a fictionalized setting using her (Davis-Goff’s) mother's memories of childhood in Waterford at the time of the Irish Easter Rising, and looking closely at the history of Roger Casement in parallel to the fictional story. It is very funny and moving and charming at the same time, with a quite wonderful description of a children’s birthday party.

Her first novel was The Dower House (1997), a-NOTHER great book. All these novels have very similar settings and characters, though different timelines, and no disrespect to the author but it is hard to keep them straight in your mind. They have an air of Nancy Mitford’s books (all over the blog) but with their own very distinctive atmosphere, and their Irishness. [BTW there is also a book called The Dower House Mystery - it's a crime novel by Patricia Wentworth from 1925, and is also on the blog]

Annabel Davis-Goff was for some years married to the film director Mike Nichols. He went on to marry the journalist and TV presenter Diane Sawyer, and when this book (Cold Country) came out in 2002, Diane went to interview Annabel as part of the publicity…. You can read a transcript of the weird and slightly awkward result here.

While I was looking for pictures for this entry I came across a photo which would seem to show relations of the author – there is discussion of the identification of those involved, but they are obviously a high-ranking Waterford family (just as in the book) with the right name in 1914. And they are going to the races, which features in the book (in the background). Picture from the National Library of Ireland.

The family on the steps, though from 1933, have the look of people in the book, same source – though frankly they look somewhat too friendly and agreeable to join the cast of This Cold Country – which is heading for Cold Comfort Farm territory at some points.

These are Land Girls picking potatoes in Wales (where Daisy worked before her marriage) from the National Library of Wales.

The two smart women looked like Daisy and Corisande, her sister-in-law, although the clothes are from the end of the war. Pics from the wonderful Imperial War Museum collection.

I have looked at

The Big Houses of Ireland (

Before, and you can find many books featuring them listed there - some great authors. Also some of the same pictures – I love the opportunity to look through the archives of the National Library of Ireland, which is an absolute treasure store of pictures, generously made available.


  1. Hang on!
    If Davis-Goff "wrote The Fox Walk (2005) – a lovely book, with a fictionalized setting using her (Davis-Goff’s) memories of childhood in Waterford at the time of the Irish Easter Rising" she must have been well over ninety when the book was published. The Easter Rising was in 1916. All the same, she sounds interesting so i'll add her to my list of books to read.

    Have you come across Anthony Hecht's riposte to On Dover Beach?

    The Dover Bitch

    A Criticism of Life: for Andrews Wanning

    So there stood Matthew Arnold and this girl
    With the cliffs of England crumbling away behind them,
    And he said to her, 'Try to be true to me,
    And I'll do the same for you, for things are bad
    All over, etc., etc.'
    Well now, I knew this girl. It's true she had read
    Sophocles in a fairly good translation
    And caught that bitter allusion to the sea,
    But all the time he was talking she had in mind
    The notion of what his whiskers would feel like
    On the back of her neck. She told me later on
    That after a while she got to looking out
    At the lights across the channel, and really felt sad,
    Thinking of all the wine and enormous beds
    And blandishments in French and the perfumes.
    And then she got really angry. To have been brought
    All the way down from London, and then be addressed
    As a sort of mournful cosmic last resort
    Is really tough on a girl, and she was pretty.
    Anyway, she watched him pace the room
    And finger his watch-chain and seem to sweat a bit,
    And then she said one or two unprintable things.
    But you mustn't judge her by that. What I mean to say is,
    She's really all right. I still see her once in a while
    And she always treats me right. We have a drink
    And I give her a good time, and perhaps it's a year
    Before I see her again, but there she is,
    Running to fat, but dependable as they come.
    And sometimes I bring her a bottle of Nuit d' Amour.

    1. Well first, yes of course - I dropped a word, now corrected, it was her MOTHER's memories that she drew on. I didn't really make it clear that the three books take you through the 20th C - Fox Walk, then Cold Country, then Dower House.

      No had never seen the poem, and although the name was familiar, I had to look up Anthony Hecht, he's not someone I know much about. Interesting and clever take on the original. You do always wonder what the recipient of Dover Beach was thinking, thought pretty sure it wasn't that!
      A poem I very much like on vaguely related themes (well, they connect in my mind) is Louis MacNeice's Les Sylphides

  2. It does take just the right touch to make this sort of book really feel fresh and interesting, Moira. I'm glad she had that touch. There's something about those family dynamics, too. I can see how it would make for a really interesting story (what do you do when you go to live with people you don't know?) Now I must check out that interview with Diane Sawyer - talk about your awkwardness...

    1. Thanks Margot - and yes, I do love a book about relationships! And that could be a novel, a crime book or a poem. And I love that feeling when you realize a book is going to be about a fascinating situation, like moving somewhere new, and that you are in good hands with the author..

  3. I read The Dower House when it came out and liked it, although I don't remember it at all. I don't think I ever came across any others. This sounds like the kind of book I enjoy and I meant to buy in armfuls when I was in London (I did buy a lot of books but don't seem to have found any treasures). Moira, if you don't care for squabbling Irish families, does that mean you don't like my favorite book set in Ireland, Sabrina by Madeleine Polland?

    1. I think when I read Dower House it resonated because I was a long way from home, and separately hadn't been to Ireland for a while, and that feel for a place, a home, chimed with me. But I also do think it is a great book!

      Now, I had never heard of the book Sabrina, but have just ordered it! It sounds great, even if the family is going to squabble. I hadn't come across the author before

    2. I think you will really like it. She wrote a number of children's and adult novels that are very good but that is my favorite. Also Sabrina has a sister named Constance, a name usually reserved for fictional villains, who turns out to be a supportive character - a nice change.

    3. It has just arrived! I am looking forward to it. And I empathize - my name (Moira) is usually reserved for mean or villainous characters.


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