Posts Tagged ‘Ruth Adam’

With thanks to the publisher for the ebook

It probably comes as no surprise that after Hurricane Season, I was in need of another palate cleanser – my collection of Dean street press books were the obvious place to go.

The House in the Country by Ruth Adam is not to be confused with the Persephone title of the same name.

“This is a cautionary tale and true… Never fall in love with a house”

Straightaway then we sense that perhaps this story of a love affair with a house won’t be an entirely happy one.

There is still a lot of joy in this book, and it was a pleasure to spend time with. Really a quite different book though to the previous books I have read by Ruth Adam.

“It was the end of the war, and we were very tired of the squalor. We were tired of the blackout edging obscuring the daylight from the windows and of breakfasts of powdered egg eaten at noon because one had been fire-watching last night. We were so very tired of disorder – of living in one room to save fuel, of the smell of scraps boiling up for the backyard hens, of beds in the downstairs rooms and of grubby air-raid shelter in the tiny neglected garden.”

The novel – I think it is safe to still call this a novel, just – is based on Ruth Adam’s own experiences of sharing a large country house with some other families after the war. Here the narrator is unnamed until late in the book when she is revealed as Mrs Adam – i.e. Ruth herself – her husband is also unnamed – but we can take him to be Ruth’s own husband Kenneth Adam – who later became a director for the BBC. Together with their own three children and assorted friends and relations Lefty, Bob, Timmy and Diana the family set up home in a large country house in Kent.

After living through years of wartime privations, bad food, cold, unsuitable housing, blackouts and rationing Ruth and her friends decide to live the dream they have had so long. The fantasy life they talked about through years of hardship – to live in a house in the country where they will have space and privacy and the opportunity to enjoy the world around them in all its beauty. They envisage open fires and good food – a larder stocked with hams. An advertisement in the Times – a large country house for rent, attracts their attention – the finances carefully worked out – everything divided by six – and it’s not long before they are actually moving in.

There is a lot of lovely detail here about setting up the house – allocating rooms, decorating, and laying out their scant pile of furniture and possessions in the large spaces of this thirty-three roomed house. All houses have their quirks and odd little features, even small ones. This house comes with a temperamental boiler, five kitchens a resident bat, stabling and a wonderful garden stocked with flowers. It is also possessed of a head gardener – Howard – who once worked for the previous owner – and has been taking care of the empty house throughout the war. He is a marvellous character – prefacing almost every speech to Ruth with the words “don’t you say nothing…” before immediately setting off to put right what ever is wrong. He fixes the boiler, sees about leaks, and intercedes with his late employer’s daughter who turns up wanting her lino and apple tree retuned. Howard is a marvel with one of Ruth’s young sons she is charmed by the affect this new way of life is having on him.

“Every boy should have a year at the heels of an old craftsman sometime in his life. A dozen nursery schools could not have given Colin the half of what Howard gave him. Howard accepted him, with serious and conscientious calm, like a schoolmaster who has got countless generations of boys through their first Latin primer and then let them go, satisfied that the foundations have been well laid.”

Howard will have absolutely no truck with the nearby village. However, Ruth’s household include those who could be called loosely – BBC types – and they impress themselves on the villagers by producing a radio star to open the village fete. Many of the relationships built up through the years spent in this house are with those who come to work here.  There are a succession of staff – and in the description of their comings and goings, working days and carefully worked out rotas I can see something of those socially historical details that Ruth Adam writes about elsewhere. The world has changed, and those who work in large house now have set hours, duties laid down and timetables stuck to – these are the kind of details that Ruth Adam is so good at laying before her readers.

The novel covers something like eight years – and so there is a sense of time hurrying by – and perhaps a few pages cover quite a length of time. Some of the original residents of the house move on – new arrangements are put in place – money becomes an issue. There are triumphs and disasters – and some pretty horrific rats – and the house changes with the departure and arrival of those who come to stay, this includes paying, foreign guests and household staff who become part of the family.

We know from the beginning that this wasn’t a forever home – and so the time inevitably comes when Ruth and her family leave this house – there is a sense of poignancy and moving on. The end of an era for them, and a lovely reading experience for us.

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Several weeks ago, I read I’m Not Complaining by Ruth Adam, a novel I loved from page one and which ended up on my books of the year list. While reading that novel I idly went in search of others – as we book addicts do, and while several were unobtainable or absurdly priced, I found a cheap copy of So Sweet a Changeling on ebay. I knew nothing about the novel – but decided it was worth giving it a try.  

So Sweet a Changeling is a later novel than I’m Not Complaining, the word changeling in the title dating it rather I thought. It’s a novel that is a little more emotionally dramatic than I’m Not Complaining. Adam’s interest in social issues is definitely still in evidence here as she considers the plight of those who long for children and haven’t been able to have them, and those who carelessly produce them and struggle to do right by them.

The novel opens in a nursing home, where Alma Morris has lost her child and is forced to recover in a room adorned with pretty baby pictures on the walls. Meanwhile a few rooms away Cherry awaits the birth of her first child. She is young, unmarried, a nurse herself her friendship with one of the members of staff secured her a place in the home. Cherry always has her nose in a glamour magazine, she seems more interested in her appearance and her boyfriend than in her child that will arrive any moment. In fact, her child has been promised to a wealthy local woman Mrs Cave; whose longing for a child has reached the point of obsession. The unorthodox adoption has been organised by the matron at the home and is strictly against the rules – but Cherry is rather enjoying the attention and the power the final decision gives her.

Cherry gives birth to a daughter – and with relations with Mrs Cave having broken down she recklessly thrusts her daughter into Alma’s arms as she leaves the hospital, asking her to care for her until she is set up properly in London. Alma’s husband Bernard is the cautious type who likes things done officially, yet he can’t bear to say no to Alma and the couple take the baby home – for how long they don’t know.

“There opened a period of such golden happiness that Alma almost wished some little thing would go wrong, just to give her a breathing-space and let her get her feet back on solid earth for a moment. She sometimes thought she was obeying a mysterious law of compensation. When her own baby had drawn its first and final breath, and made a lifetime of a few minutes by the clock, she had embarked on such a period of sorrow as she had never known before. She had perceived, as she endured its unbelievable pain, that her previous life had run in lukewarm and pleasant channels.”

Thus, begins a period of about eighteen months of emotional turmoil for the Morrises, which sees them part with the baby they call Vicky once – only to have her back when Cherry can’t cope.

While Ruth Adam also examines the plight of the young, working mother in this novel, the difficulties faced by mothers like Cherry – Cherry herself is portrayed as being an unsuitable parent. Certainly, although Cherry is sometimes silly and selfish, she cares for her daughter enough to want the best for her. I wondered if there isn’t a degree of 1950s moralising here. Living with her boyfriend who can’t marry her until he has completed his medical training, Cherry takes a job at a clinic.  Childcare is the biggest issue – there isn’t a lot of money and she has to rely on her landlady whose patience with the situation soon begins to wane. Cherry working all day, coming home foot sore and exhausted to a demanding baby struggles to cope – some evenings her boyfriend wants them to go out. It isn’t long before she is asking Alma to take Julia (as she calls the baby) back again.

“The idea of anything happening to Julia gave her a fearful pang. But on second thoughts, when she pictured her life without Julia in it, she had a rush of nostalgia for the freedom she used to have before Julia claimed her as a slave – a slave with no rightful hours of freedom.”

Bernard wants everything official; Alma just wants Vicky with them. Months pass – sometimes Cherry phones out of the blue – asking to visit – the household is on the knife edge of Cherry’s whims. Official wheels are put in motion, but things take time, and anything can happen before a judge has made a ruling. Meanwhile Mrs Cave appears again, still smarting over her disappointment, clearly unwell – and prepared to do what she can to get her own way. Cherry holds all the cards and is easily persuadable.

Soon Alma and Bernard find themselves on the run with Vicky, hiding from police and press – desperate to keep hold of the little girl who has come to mean so much to them.

So Sweet a Changeling is a real emotional page turner – that I enjoyed a lot. It isn’t quite in the same league as I’m Not Complaining, but it’s well worth reading.

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I’m not Complaining joins that list of VMC titles that I loved so much, that I will forever envy those discovering it for the first time.

Our narrator; Madge Brigson is a Nottinghamshire primary school teacher in the 1930s, a neighbourhood dominated by large factories and increasingly plagued by high levels of unemployment. Madge is thirty, with ten years teaching experience she considers herself sensibly mature, well past any silly dreams of romance. Madge is a little sensitive about the tag of old maid schoolteacher, she knows people smile wryly at unmarried schoolmarms (though married women are not allowed to be teachers) and it humiliates her. When she is forced to report a crime to the local police – she sees their barely concealed smiles of derision and it rankles for weeks.

The novel starts a couple of weeks into the new school year, each of the five teachers have a class of at least fifty pupils to get to grips with. Madge’s colleagues are; Jenny Lambert; Madge’s pretty, promiscuous friend, kind middle aged spinster Miss Jones, Freda the earnest communist and Miss Thornby who is in charge of the infant class. Their headteacher is Miss Harford. Together these women must face the day to day existence of school life, which includes the awe-inspiring legality of the daily register, and the ever present threat of the school inspectors.

“We were all at loggerheads that day because the Scripture had been inspected. It seemed silly, because the Scripture is the one inspection that does not matter at all from the point of view of one’s career. It is the merest matter of form. … if you care to teach the children that Jesus Christ lived in the Ark with Noah, the only thing that will happen to you is that some old parson, without any power at the Office at all, will gently remonstrate with you, and the next inspection will be by a member of some religious sect who probably believes something equally odd about Bible history himself. So I did not worry.”

Each day they ride the trams out of the town to a nearby garden suburb where they live – Madge sharing a bungalow with two other young women, Jenny in two rooms above a grocery shop, watched over by a suspicious landlady.

Madge and her colleagues are realistically unromantic about their charges and the families they come from. They are by now too used to the nits, the squabbles, the combative parents to expect much. The Hunt family are especially notorious – a loud, undisciplined bunch with a child in each class. Their eldest girl, unemployed and apparently prostituting herself now, even turns up in the night school class Madge takes to earn more money. Madge can be a little bit judgmental; she looks down at the Hunts and their ilk – but then so does everyone. She has deep suspicions about the school caretaker, suffering shell shock from the war, and determines to get him dismissed. She is hardworking though, and deep down she does want the best for the children in her care, she is often horrified by the gaps present in the society she sees around her, both fascinated and repelled by the politically motivated violence she witnesses on the way to catch a tram one evening. Brought up in the country – where she often spends the school holidays, she finds life in this industrial town hard sometimes.

“It was the last mild day. At the end of that week the winter began in deadly earnest, as though the cold days before had been merely a temporary substitute for the real thing. I had a persistent sensation, as we plunged deeper into those short, icy days, with their lowering fogs, that the town was plunging down with us. It was frightening. We all seemed to be one — the huge husks of the great factory buildings whose heart-beats had stopped — the grey, stained houses round them, the tragic men who stood for ever at street-corners, and the children who came to school in fewer and fewer warm clothes, because as the weather got colder they were pawned for food. I would like to have been detached from it — a visitor, coming down to work and then going away. But I could not get the feeling of detachment. I was part of it, bound irrevocably to their miseries because my work was their children.”

 Madge looks forward to a time, when her hard work means she can afford a little cottage in the country.

As the novel opens it becomes obvious that Jenny, a few years younger than Madge; has become pregnant by the Professor she’s been having an affair with. Madge, deeply disapproving, is drawn into the drama, which includes a weekend visit to the young Professor and his wife to talk about their problem. Mr Gregory the rabble rousing, political curate has offered to marry Jenny, but she decides on another, less conventional solution, not ready to give up her independence.

“I lay awake for a long time that night, but not planning for Jenny. Instead, I thought about myself, from my well-disciplined childhood as the daughter of the village schoolmaster, through the bewildering, over enthusiastic friendships of college, through the ten years’ teaching which had left me with a third share in a little bungalow in the suburbs, a hundred pounds in the bank, and an expert knowledge of how to teach Mental Arithmetic – nothing more. I was sorry for Jenny, and frightened for her, and terribly jealous of her. Hardworking, contented women like me get this longing, from time to time, for all the experiences that have passed us by.”

Meanwhile the spinsterish Miss Jones, is delighting in the letters she is receiving from her sailor friend – who she is excited to be seeing soon when his ship docks. When a large factory is closed and the unemployment money is cut – dissent and demonstration begin to sweep the town, Mr Gregory becomes involved in the fight which also ignites Freda’s politics.

I’m Not Complaining is a wonderful novel – which would appeal to fans of writers like Winifred Holtby and E H Young. The people of Ruth Adam’s second novel are clearly drawn from life – they are the people she knew growing up the daughter of a Nottinghamshire clergyman. From what I read in the introduction to this edition, this realism is present in her other novels too, they however, seem virtually impossible to get hold of, although I have just tracked down one for a mere fiver – though I know nothing about it.

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