A novel about an orphaned actress who inherits a house in Devonshire and instead of selling it makes the less practical decision to move in. 1966.
Apparently, if you live with me long enough, you can tell how much I like a book just by how I read it. It was my boyfriend who first brought these patterns to my attention.
For instance, if I speed through a book faster than you can say, “Bree, I thought you said you would do the dishes,” it will usually get a 4/5 star rating. A 5/5 star book, on the other hand, tends to last longer. Why? Because a 4/5 star book isn’t so amazing that I need to stretch out the experience. A 3/5 star book will last just as long as a 5/5 star book, but that’s just because I’m not very into it.
The difference between a 3/5 star book and a 5/5 star one is how pleasant I am to live with—I kid you not. And what about the 1/5 and 2/5 star books? Puh-leez. I have better things to do with my time.
The fun part about this pattern is that in my house it’s inspired a game. Here’s how the game goes: I read the books, and then my boyfriend “calls” the rating. However, I’m still the one who reviews them. Which makes me particularly ashamed when I admit that I actually read The House on the Cliff several months ago, and only now realized I never reviewed it. Oops!
The House on the Cliff falls into the unusual category of being both a book I read very quickly, and one I rated 5/5 stars. It’s now the third D. E. Stevenson book I’ve read, and all three have been exceptional. Best of all, I’ve barely even made a dent in the DES oeuvre! So that means I can throw caution to the wind and just DEVOUR her books.
The story begins with Elfrida Jane (really, DES? Elfrida??), a young woman who’s an actress, but not likely to become a famous one—she’s too mousy and shy. She lives in a boardinghouse run by a nosy but kind-hearted widow, Miss Martineau, who readers of The Blue Sapphire will be happy to encounter again. One day Miss Martineau sees a newspaper ad inquiring after Elfrida’s mother, who recently passed away. Miss Martineau talks little Elfrida into going to see the lawyer who placed the ad.
Well, here’s the part where DES fulfills our wildest dreams: Elfrida, in place of her deceased mother, has inherited a big house in Devonshire. It’s the house that belonged to her grandparents, and Elfrida’s mother would have inherited the house, except she eloped with a man her parents disapproved of and they disinherited her. In the end, though, they repented this rift with their daughter and decided to leave the house to her. Elfrida, as the next in line, has inherited the house instead.
Just like in The Heir, another book about a Londoner gaining an inheritance, the lawyers by default assume Elfrida will sell the place. You see, she’s inherited the house, called Mountain Cross, but there’s no money to go with it. Apparently, her grandfather rather irresponsibly allowed the family fortune to dwindle over the years. In spite of the suggestions of the well-meaning lawyer, Elfrida decides she must at least go see the house where her mother grew up.
But she also has a reason for wanting to get away from London. For one, she has a bit role in a play that’s sure to flop. Secondly, she’s helplessly infatuated with Glen, the lead actor in the play, who only deigns to take notice of her once she announces she’s leaving. Miss Martineau, a friend as well as a landlady, is concerned about Elfrida’s fruitless infatuation and convinces Elfrida that a change of scene would be for the best.
What follows is the story of how Elfrida comes to love Mountain Cross to the point where she can’t bear the idea of parting with it. In falling in love with the house, she also gets to know her family’s faithful servants, her family’s neighbors, and, through the stories of both servants and neighbors, gets to better understand her family itself. For all of Elfrida’s life “family” was limited to her and her mother (she never knew her father), so becoming part of a family and community is perhaps a greater gift than the house itself.
Then there’s her love life, which up until now has also been quite meager. Glen the studly actor makes further appearances, but gradually he loses his veneer. I thought this part was brilliantly depicted. DES’s insight into the actor’s temperament makes me suspect she knew an actor or two…Elfrida’s main revelation about Glen dawns slowly: when Glen is happy or upset or an angry father (yes, incredibly enough he has a son!), Glen isn’t feeling these emotions so much as he is playing them. In every DES novel I’ve read, the story is accompanied by a certain depth—some commentary on life you wouldn’t expect from this genre but is nonetheless quietly profound. This unexpected depth, such as Elfrida’s revelation of Glen’s true character, is an important key to DES’s lasting power.
Also, like in Katherine Wentworth, I loved that the real love story (ahem, not Glen) was a gradual thing as well. Once again DES seems disinclined to throw her troubled heroine into the arms of the nearest man. Rather, Eflrida and this young man get to know each other through the course of the novel. It’s obvious the young man is head-over-heels from the start, but Elfrida first has to resolve her own stuff—and become happy in her own right—before she can consider a partnered happily-ever-after. She even has to figure out how to be self-sufficient with money! Imagine that: money in fiction is just as necessary as it is in reality??
Once again, I bow down before DES and her dedication to portraying the real stuff of life. Within the span of a few hundred pages I grow to love and admire her principal characters. I laugh at the colloquialisms of her minor characters, who are the rough, uncut gems of the story. Every time I finish one of her books, I wish it had a sequel!
Also, I’m hoping that DES truly is a prophetess, because that means any day now I’ll be inheriting an English country house via some long-lost relative. All right, that’ll be fine with me!