Recently I wrote about Helen Ashton – and my pleasure at finding some copies of her books which remain (with the exception of one) out of print. My copy, a 1956 hardback sadly lacks the dust jacket pictured above.
I had seen mixed reviews of The Half-Crown House – the third Helen Ashton book I have read – but I have to say I very much enjoyed it. Many readers might find it a little bit of a slow burn – I do think that that is simply Helen Ashton’s style. The story is that of a house on one day – with flashbacks to the past and the recent-ish history of the family who live there.
In the difficult years following the Second World War the families who owned large houses of a certain type had to rethink the way that they were run – if they had any chance of surviving. Fountain Court is a much smaller house than the famous houses like Chatsworth and Althorp – and is less of a draw to sightseers. On Saturdays and Wednesdays between April and the end of October Fountain Court is open to the public –for an entrance fee of half a crown. The household staff and members of the Hornbeam family who live there act as guides to keep down the costs. Built on the foundations of a Cistercian Abbey; Fountain Court had been home to the Hornbeam family since the Reformation. I loved Aston’s portrayal of the house, a place definitely feeling its age – it has its attics and dark corners and alongside the human occupants are the creatures that find their way in through its ancient nooks and crannies.
“At night the rats came out and frisked boldly through the attics, gnawed and scratched their way under doors, ran about with the thumping noises in empty rooms. The house-mice scampered up and down their own long corridors under the floor-boards; they squeaked and fought among the joists, made themselves nests out of nibbled paper and rags. Every autumn, when the corn and been carried, there was an invasion of field-mice; one year they got into the velvet pillows of the state bed in the Queen’s room, shut up for the winter, and nibbled holes in the embroidered curtains; cats and traps could not keep pace with the field-mice. They would get into the larder and drown themselves in cream-pans.”
The novel opens on the 30th October 1954 – the last day of the year that Fountain Court will be open before the long winter break. It is a busy day – the small group of visitors paying their half-crowns to look around just the least of it. Living in the old house now are just two of the remaining Hornbeam family – Henrietta – still mourning the death of her beloved twin brother during the war, and her grandmother; the dowager Lady Hornbeam. Henrietta’s young brother had married just a few weeks before his death, and the posthumous child (the fifth Baron Hornbeam) of that rash marriage is just nine years old – and coming to live at Fountain Court on the day the story opens. His mother has re-married and poor young Victor is being sent to live with his father’s family in the house which one day will belong to him. Sad to be saying goodbye to his mother, Victor won’t miss his horrid stepfather – Mr Pine – who smarts at the memory of his wife’s first husband.
“Henrietta did not come a moment too soon. She had been down the garden, she said, tidying up the herbaceous border. She kissed her nephew and his mother, offered tea or coffee and a walk through the State rooms, but could not persuade Mr Pine to abandon his grievance. “I got no time to spare,” was his ungracious answer to everything. “we’re late as it is. We got to get back to Stafford. There’s a man coming to see me about a conversion-job.” Inside ten minutes he had them all out under the pillared portico and had started up a car with a snout like a mouth-organ; his new wife was kneeling on the black and white marble flagstones, with her fur coat spread round her, kissing goodbye to her son. As they drove away she looked back and saw him standing by his tall aunt. He raised his hand in a timid farewell and his mother’s eyes filled with tears; after this morning he would never really be her boy anymore.”
Cousin Charles; came home from the war minus one arm and one eye, his help and support in running the estate, so invaluable to Henrietta – lives above the stables. Nanny is looking forward to having a child in the nursery again – and Mr Leaf the butler is preparing for an important lunch. Henrietta has been spending time with John Cornell, an American who has been staying at the nearby American base where his younger brother had served. John has organised a meeting between Henrietta and an antiques expert – who might be willing to buy a family portrait – money that the family and Fountain Court, desperately need. As Henrietta prepares for the meeting, all too aware of the feelings that John Cornell has begun to have towards her – her wily old grandmother upstairs attended faithfully by her Swiss maid is nursing a few old secrets. Henrietta is desperately attached to Fountain Court – she is desperate to save it – many people believe she should simply give it up – but would she really consider making a life with the American (as he is invariably referred to) and leave?
Although the action, such as it is – takes place on one day – a day heralding great change – the past weaves in and out of the 30th October 1954 through the stories we hear of the past. Memories are shared and recounted, stories that include a Queen’s visit, a disastrous marriage, several family tragedies and scandals. Ashton creates a lovely sense of history – a crumbling old house and a family still living in the past. As a visitor to many old English houses myself, where one hears so many similar stories – I know what changes the twentieth century brought to houses like this.