Bringing the Past Alive

I’ve often wondered how writers manage to think themselves back into the past. The historical novel is such a massive genre, given the fascination we have with bygone eras, and you don’t have to go far back, even into the twentieth century, to find yourself in a completely different world. A little while ago I read Kate Morton’s bestselling novel, The House at Riverton. Yes, this one has been around for a while now and probably loads of people have already read it, and I have to confess that its popularity was one of the reasons why I picked it up. The story is told from the point of view of Grace Bradley, once the lowest of housemaids at Riverton, now a frail ninety-eight year old woman. Immured in her nursing home, Grace attracts the attention of a director making a film about the tragedy that occurred in the stately home way back in 1924. All we know is that the First World War poet Robbie Hunter died of a gunshot wound and the two beautiful daughters of the house, Hannah and Emmeline, were forever estranged. Morton takes Grace back in her memory to her earliest days as a servant, when the two sisters were still children, and the narrative inches forward through their adolescence, the war, the gradual decline of the family and the inexorable assemblage of circumstances that will lead to catastrophe. Interspersed with her memories are scenes of Grace’s present life, so the reader should know what happened to her in the aftermath of Robbie Hunter’s death. This was an incredibly easy read, although it was not an insult to the intelligence. But really, it’s the kind of prose you don’t have to chew. Morton is a highly competent author who knows how to set up a scene and to create interesting characters. She also manages to evoke the atmosphere of that early part of the century with great skill.

But…. Well, I couldn’t help but feel that we are given the past as we like to think it might have been. It felt a bit like reading a film produced for television, although that is not without its charm. And I also felt that it was way too long. What’s happened to the kind of editor who recognizes the value of concision? I very much enjoyed the first two thirds of this novel, but at some point around 1920 I wondered when I was ever going to get near the great tragedy I had been promised. The build up to it is very subtle and padded out with what seems like a lot of extraneous detail, and by the time I finally made it to the end the event felt too slight to carry the weight of the previous 500 pages. It wasn’t poorly done, it wasn’t too preposterous, it developed neatly out of the flaws and foibles of the characters, but in all honesty, by that point that I no longer cared the way I should. All this being said, I will probably read Morton’s next book, but I’ll save it up for the next time I have a nasty cold and need something utterly comforting and pre-digested.

The other book I read was Laurie Graham’s The Importance of Being Kennedy. Another novel inhabiting a servant’s point of view (very useful for satirizing the pretensions of the rich and powerful), this narrative is supposedly written by Nora Brennan, nanny to the Kennedy dynasty. Now this book powered along with some real verve. Nora’s voice is just a delight, witty, irreverent and gloriously Irish in its cadences. The story shoots us through the twenty-something years that Nora heads the nursery and the wildly differing stories of the nine Kennedy children it contains. Despite marshalling this impressive cast list, I never got confused who was who, and a vibrant portrait of the family emerged. Nora joins the family when Joe Junior is the only child and she depicts the single-minded way he was groomed by his ambitious parents to be the first Catholic President of the United States, only of course fate intervenes. We see Jack, prone to every possible illness, a sickly child if a charming one, Rosie, whose ‘slowness’ is considered intolerable with disastrous results, and Kick, or Kathleen, the rebellious fun-loving daughter who dares to stand against her mother in her choice of husband. Although this is in many ways the story of the children, its Mr and Mrs K, as Nora calls them, who really stand out as characters. Mrs. Kennedy is the perfect example of a mother whose ideals of mothering get in the way of her humanity. Hobnobbing with royalty, keeping her figure, dominating her children’s education are the mainstays of her existence, but she is shockingly lacking in loving maternal sentiment. Mr K is the more affectionate parent, but his business takes him away from home for long stretches and his eye for the ladies is a cause of domestic discontent and a dangerous legacy for his sons.

This story takes us right through the Second World War, which Nora spends in London for various reasons, and her account of the bombing has a lively veracity. The differences between England and America are also well drawn, particularly with regard to the battlelines drawn up between the servant class and their masters. All in all I loved this book and would thoroughly recommend it. Once it had ended I went straight to the library catalogue to see what official biographies of the Kennedy family existed. But in the end I didn’t check any out as I wondered what they could give me that Graham’s account couldn’t. Of course she does draw her narrative to a close long before JFK became President – very wisely, I think, given the mythic dimensions of that particular part of history. But I felt she did a wonderful job of bringing the family to life over the period of time before they became famous, whilst they were in the formative stages of becoming their own legend. This was an ambitious book, but one carried off with verve. Laurie Graham has an extensive back catalogue that I will be reading through, including a book I’ve got on my shelves about GI brides, The Future Homemakers of America. I wish I could put my finger on the difference between these two books, and why one entertained me in ways the other didn’t, but it may simply lie in the choice of character. In Kate Morton’s book, Grace is meek and insipid, scared of her wealthy, glamourous overlords and struggling to transcend incomprehension and anxiety. Nora, by contrast, is fully her own person, confident and capable, utterly down-to-earth. Her eye lands on her employers with a judicial, unflinching gaze. Perhaps it was just that I preferred her sharp wit and her rapid-fire delivery, but brought to me in her voice the past no longer seemed as if it were behind glass, but right here in my hands.


9 thoughts on “Bringing the Past Alive

  1. I enjoyed the Morton book a lot (I’ve been fascinated by that period for a while now), but I agree that the book could have done with a bit of editing. And you’re right that Grace was quite a meek character–especially in contrast to the two sisters. I’ve got her new one and will read it eventually as well (maybe over the winter holidays!). Now Laurie Graham is another author I’m interested in. I’ve got Future Homemakers of America as well as another one (the title escapes me at the moment). I’m not familiar with the one you read and must check it out!

  2. This is not the type of book I usually gravitate toward but you’ve made The Importance of Being Kennedy sounds like quite a good read. And it wouldn’t hurt for me to read something about this part of American history, even if it is fictionalized. Writing historical fiction takes great skill, I believe, to make whatever slice of history the writer is focusing on to come alive and resonate with the reader of a different period.

  3. I haven’t read the Morton book, so I can’t comment other than to say that I was talking to a friend on Tuesday evening who said that while she’d quite enjoyed the first one, Morton’s new novel (can’t remember what it’s called – something about a garden?) was very much better. The Graham sounds fascinating. Perhaps I could stretch a point and put it in the New York project?

  4. I was pretty lukewarm about the Morton book but might try the second one if it comes my way. The Kennedy sounds great and I have been attracted to the Future Homemakers so these I will certainly look out for.

  5. What an interesting contrast between the two books. Perhaps you liked The Importance of Being Kennedy better because it had verve as you mention a couple of times. Some books generate a certain energy that helps move the reader along and some don’t. The ones that don’t require a bit more work from the reader I think even if they are easy reads.

  6. Emily – I would love to know what the other books on your list are – will you blog about it one day? Danielle – I remember your review of this book (which I enjoyed very much) and it was a good, enjoyable book (apart from the slow bits). I’d really love to know what you think of Laurie Graham – this book was fun and I do think you would enjoy it. Verbivore – both books are on the comfort read end of the scale, but I thought the Graham book was much better written. You might be intrigued by the voice of Nora Brennan which is very well done and beautifully maintained for the whole of the narrative. I don’t know HOW writers manage to reconstruct the past like this – it amazes me! Ann – what an interesting (and encouraging) comment from your friend. I think she has potential as a writer, so I will read the second. I think Nora visits New York at one point in the story so that ought to qualify it for your project! Harriet – I will be very interested indeed to know what you think of Laurie Graham, and yes, we obviously felt very similarly about Morton! Stefanie – you’re quite right, it was that sense of energy I loved about the Graham. The Morton was elegant and elegiac, but nothing beats a joke every now and again I find! 🙂

  7. Hmmm … a nice long novel does have its attractions, but I’m not sure if I want one that feels draggy, especially since I read so slowly. I hadn’t heard of the other author, so thanks for introducing her to me!

  8. Dorothy – you’re welcome! I find I have to really be in the mood for a long-ish book. This one is quick to read, but I have to admit I did find the third quarter flagged a bit for me.

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