Some books are particularly difficult to talk about coherently because in many ways nothing very much happens. That is in no way ever a criticism from me – because quite simply I prefer books like that. The Happy Tree by Rosalind Murray – Persephone book number 108 – is a glorious example of such books. This is a novel about an idyllic childhood and the slow, sad disappointing years that come after it. The Happy Tree is not however a depressing book, it is somehow more than just the story of a series of griefs and disappointments. Rosalind Murray’s writing lifts it beyond that age old tale of the mistakes that are made when the choices for women are so limited. It is difficult to covey the absolute perfection of this novel, but it is certainly a contender for one of my books of the year.
“And my life up to now comes before me very clearly; the people and the places, and the choices and mistakes, and I seem to see it all in better proportion than before; less clouded and blurred across by the violent emotion of youth.”
The Happy Tree opens with the death of a young man, and told in retrospect by a woman who is slightly astonished to find she is now forty. Our narrator, Helen Woodruffe remembers her childhood with her adored cousins Guy and Hugo in the years before the First World War. We then witness the emotional toll the war takes on Helen, as it necessarily takes or changes the people she loves. Helen grew up spending part of her life in London in the home of her grandmother and part in Yearsly, the country estate of the Laurier family. Here at Yearsly Helen spends her happiest times, basking in the comforting, calm presence of Cousin Delia her husband John and their sons Guy and Hugo. At Yearsly life is easy and relaxed; the three children have the blissful freedom of gardens, tennis courts, meadows and woods in which to play, and their most special place – the Happy Tree.
“This wood was a particular home for us: we played in the trees like birds or squirrels, and built great nests of sticks in which we sat.
We had special trees too – good trees and bad trees, which seemed to us like people. There was one in particular, a very big one, which we called the Happy Tree.”
It is with Hugo that Helen has the strongest bond; she feels she shares a special understanding with Hugo that is unique. First Guy goes away to school, and then a couple of years later Hugo goes away too and Helen sees less of them as they grow up, but when the holidays come around the three come together again at Yearsly. All too quickly however, childhood ends.
As the elder sibling Guy goes to Oxford first, followed in time by Hugo. In these years of early adulthood before the war intrudes, Helen still sees a lot of Guy and Hugo, meeting them and their friends at Oxford. They introduce her to the Addingtons, Mollie and George a brother and sister who it soon seems to Helen she must have always known. These are the people most important to Helen as a young woman, she is (although barely admitting it even to herself) in love with Hugo, but when it appears that Hugo does not return her feelings, Helen drifts into marriage with an Oxford acquaintance of her cousins, Walter Sebright a rather dry academic. Walter’s outlook on life is very different to that of Guy and Hugo, Walter is irritated by Helen’s genteel cousins, he finds their easy way of moving through life at odds with his own hard-working, middle-class upbringing. Walter’s sister Maud is a headmistress of a school, a rather strident, managing woman she has very definite ideas about things and when Walter and Helen announce their engagement she is quick to tell Helen how she must expect to live as a poor professor’s wife. Cousin Delia is as supportive as ever, she seems to sense that Helen isn’t as happy with her choice as she should be, and counsels caution, but overwhelmed by the weight of the decision she has already made Helen goes ahead with her wedding.
‘It will be better when we are married. Only two weeks more to wait now’
And I knew then that it was bound to come; that I must go through with it; and I did not know whether it was a mistake or not”
War comes to Europe and everything is changed, Helen a young still quite newly married woman, fears for her husband now she is a mother, but Walter is passed as medically unfit for service. Guy, Hugo and many of their friends including George Addington head off to war, while Mollie turns her hand to nursing. Not everyone comes home, and those who do are changed, the world is changed and their special places are altered too. Helen struggles to find her way in this new, brittle, post war world.
“It’s hard for me now when I think of those years at Yearsly to see them clearly and critically at all. It seems to me now that the life we led was a perfect life, as happy and complete as any children could possibly have. I know that is unlikely to have been quite perfect for nothing is; perhaps we were too idle; perhaps we should have been made to work harder and take lessons more seriously, I know Walter thinks we were all spoiled, that the realities of life were not brought before us, and that Guy and Hugo suffered afterwards for this. There may be something in what he says. I don’t know. I only know that it was the happiest part of my life and I believe of theirs too, and that it helped me afterwards, when things were bad and difficult, to look back to those times and live them over again; and as for Guy and Hugo they were and are to me all I could wish for anyone to be, and I cannot wish anything at all different about them.”
Helen is just one of thousands of women, she understands that all too well herself, women whose lives were interrupted by a terrible war, who lost people they loved and married the wrong men. Helen is representative of that generation of women, who find they have aged quicker than they expected, emotionally scarred by the war, and the losses it brought. The past remains the one bright light in Helen’s life, her mind can’t help but return to the days at Yearsly when she Guy and Hugo were young. There is a beautiful, tender poignancy to this novel, by a woman I hadn’t heard of until Persephone re-issued this novel.