Sometimes I find it hard to review a book I particularly loved – I could just say – ‘find a copy, read it!’
Crossriggs is one of the novels that Scottish sisters Jane and Mary Findlater collaborated on together, but they each wrote independently too. Crossriggs is the only one of their books I have come across so far – I shall now have to look out for more.
I have had this lovely old Virago a while, sent to me by Kaggsy as part of a Librarything Virago group secret Santa two Christmases ago. Recently I mentally moved it up my tbr and at almost exactly the same time I saw Liz was reading it. Her review convinced me to read it myself almost immediately.
In the tiny Scottish village of Crossriggs, Alexandra Hope lives with her unworldly father. He is an impractical, vegetarian dreamer, called Old Hopeful by the locals, she one of those wonderfully spirited, unconventional Victorian women. Crossriggs is just an hour or so by train to Edinburgh – but it might be much further – it feels like a place far removed from polite Scottish society – remote and rather narrow – but also quite comfortably small, set against a backdrop of awe-inspiring countryside.
The household at Orchard House is a very poor one, only Alex – as she is generally called – worries about the practical aspects of being so poor. Then Alex’s older sister Matilda, now widowed returns to her father’s house with her five children.
“On the day of Matilda’s home-coming, Mr Hope was on his way to the station, hurrying along full of benevolent sympathy for his bereaved daughter, when he met Miss Elizabeth Maitland and Miss Bessie Reid. He stopped for a moment to speak with them.
‘I am just starting for Glasgow to meet my poor Matilda and her five children. There is room in the old house for them all, and plenty of room in our hearts! I must meet her when they land – she will be in need of support and comfort, poor girl,’ he explained.
His grey hair, which he always wore very long, streamed upon the breeze, his usually ruddy face was very pale with emotion. Bessie Reid and Miss Maitland exchanged glances when he had hurried on.
‘Poor Matilda – what a home-coming!’ said Miss Bessie
‘Yes poor soul; she will need something more than his support if she has five children to provide for,’ remarked Miss Elizabeth.’ “
Alex – loves her sister and adores her nieces and nephews – especially little Mike, loves having them all around her but instantly realises how difficult things will be. Matilda is the perfect, Victorian widow and mother, a little unimaginative, still pretty; she seems merely to trust that everything will work out. Alex who has absolutely refused to entertain marriage to the one eligible (dull) man, who is interested, now sets about finding ways to help her large family.
“‘Alex,’ he said, ‘you have a genius for living! You just know how to do it . . . You’re alive, and most of us, with our prudence and foresight and realisation of our duties, are as dead as stones!'”
There is a wonderful collection of Austenesque characters in the village of Crossriggs. The most notable of these – in every way – is the Maitland family. Robert Maitland has been a friend and neighbour for as long as Alex can remember, and for as long as she can remember she has looked up to him, having adored him as a young girl Alex has never let go of her feelings for Robert Maitland despite his being older and married. Robert’s wife is Laura, a frail beauty, whose only child died several years earlier, now they live with Robert’s Aunt Elizabeth – known as Aunt E.V by everyone in Crossriggs. The Maitlands have money and position, despite which they remain on especially good terms with the impoverished Hopes. Other members of Crossriggs society include the Scotts, the minister and his wife – whom Alex and the Maitlands quietly despise and no one seems to like, and the Reids. James Reid is the man Alex refuses to marry, he now lives away from the village – while his sister, no longer young, ridiculously attired, cares for an elderly, aunt and talks about the time she spent in Europe with a group of people who she tries to make sound glamorous and interesting.
In a bid to earn money – any money for her family – Alex offers to read each day to the Irascible Admiral Cassils of Foxe Hall – a man who is very particular about the society he keeps. The Admiral is almost blind, living alone – until his grandson comes to stay – he is charmed by Alex’s reading, her voice and the two become tender, unlikely friends. The Admiral’s grandson Van Cassils is almost nine years Alex’s junior – but he too is drawn to Alex – and to the household at Orchard House. For the household – although poor – is never dull – the children are lively, entertaining and Old Hopeful is a likeable if eccentric host, and he and Alex find themselves on very much the same wave length. Van Cassils is something of a radical – much to his grandfather’s disgust – Alex is always quick to say what she thinks – and Van finds this refreshing. Alex enjoys Van’s company – his friendship has become very important to her, and she can’t help but have some concerns when a sly, superficial young woman appears on the scene.
Over the course of the next four years – Crossriggs sees many changes, comings and goings, new romances, visits from pompous relatives, tragedy and comedy. Society is never quite the same when the Maitlands are away from home, Laura’s health is suffering and through little looks and things nearly said both Robert and Alex know how the other feels. Alex is now spending several days a week travelling back and forth to Edinburgh to teach elocution, while still reading to the Admiral when she can.
I loved every bit of this novel – and have tried to write about it without spoiling it for others. Alex is a wonderful character and the community of Crossriggs is delightfully drawn. I found this book very hard to put down, so very readable, there’s drama and humour and pathos in this story of a family who like Van Cassils the reader would rather like to be a part of. I particularly loved the ending – I was cheering – it was a little untypical – and I appreciate those kinds of endings.
(Jane Findlater) (Mary Findlater)