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hostagesfortune

Hostages to Fortune; first published in 1933 is a quiet novel about a family in the years between 1915 and 1933. The novel is very autobiographical, the author, like her central character Catherine, was the wife of an Oxfordshire doctor. Catherine (unlike Elizabeth Cambridge) finds she must give up her ambitions to be a writer, in the daily struggle to manage her home and three children. However the domestic struggles we see Catherine endure, her doubts and parental insecurities –must have Cambridge’s own.
‘Hostages to Fortune’ opens as Catherine has just given birth to her first child Audrey. She is still fairly newly married and her husband William is away at the war.

“She opened her eyes. Nurse was standing over her, the baby held upright against her shoulder, like the bambino on a Della Robbia Plaque.
Catherine stared. So that was her baby. Baby? Babies were sleepy amorphous, unconvincing and ugly. This creature was not amorphous, it was not even ugly. It stared at life with bright unwinking eyes. Its underlip was thrust out tremulous indignant.
‘My word’ Catherine thought ‘that’s not a baby. It’s a person.’

hostagesfortuneendWhen William returns to Catherine and Audrey in their small cottage in Cornwall he is a changed man. William buys a doctor’s practice in Oxfordshire which comes with a large house, a house that proves difficult to run when they can’t afford much help.
There is not much plot as such in this novel, but there is much to commend it. Beautifully written it lifts the lid on a real family, because Catherine, William, Audrey, Adam and Bill feel very much like people who have stepped fully formed from these pages. They are people who must surely have lived. Contrasted somewhat with the lives of Catherine and William are the lives of Violet and Edward, Catherine’s much older sister and her husband. When Catherine gives birth to Audrey in 1915 – Violet is already an experienced parent – her children some years older than Catherine’s. As the years pass – Violet has occasion to wonder at Catherine’s philosophy of parenting – although as her own children grow toward adulthood Violet has her own concerns.
There are many wonderfully memorable scenes in this novel; William bringing an old woman hurt in a motor accident home with him, a children’s party, Christmas shopping for toys and a holiday by the sea – all scenes from an ordinary life, made less ordinary by Cambridge’s writing.

“Audrey and Adam had bought two pink sugar mice with white worsted tails for Christmas presents and a sugar cage with a cardboard bird in it. Neither Catherine nor William had seen anything of the sort since they were children spending hand-warmed pennies at little sweet-stuff shops on a Saturday morning. They looked at each other and laughed.
“Hold yours up by its tail and see if its eyes drop out!”
“It’s not a guinea pig, it’s a mouse!’
Audrey stared at them. It had cost her agonies of self-control not to eat even a little bit of the mice, and now they were being treated as something to play with – they might at least have offered her a bit.”

I liked the relationship between William and Catherine, again it seemed marvellously realistic, and their affections are not over blown or flowery but true. William’s disappointment when he fails to buy his wife some pink silk stockings which he had set his heart on buying her, for instance is really touching. The people upon who Elizabeth Cambridge must have based her characters lived a long time ago – and yet their hopes and fears are our own. Early twentieth century Oxfordshire countryside and gardens bloom again in Elizabeth Cambridge’s affectionate descriptions.
This Persephone edition accompanied me on a visit to the Persephone shop in London on Tuesday – and has got my April reading off to a lovely start.

 

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