So Fair a House was Robert Neill’s first novel to be published in the Sixties, in 1960 to be precise, but it is very much a book of the Fifties, in a manner that makes it a fascinating record of an era as lost to us now as any of his historical periods. For this book is an almost total departure, in every respect, from Neill’s usual fare.
It’s set in the present day, between 1958 and 1959, it’s told in the first person, by Solicitor and Churchwarden Charles Torey, and its ‘romantic’ couple are not fresh young people setting out to establish themselves in the world but rather a middle-aged pair, a year short of fifty, one of whom is already married. Its setting is the village of Oakley Priors, five miles out of Winborough, but in reality it stands in a geographic nowhere, in no County that is named or could be presumed, except that it’s not Yorkshire. That it’s somewhere in the amorphous south and not close to London is all we get.
Which is apt, in a way, for a book that is, in essence, a ghost story, and in which a history of two and a half centuries before is not merely a curious puzzle to be unravelled, but also the catalyst for the disruption of a contemporary setting that, if not prompted in this fashion, will remain unhappy, and self-destructive.
In this aspect, it reminds me of nothing so mucg as Alan Garner’s The Owl Service, which was still eight years away from being written: the past is replayed in the present, but in So Fair a House, it is done without destruction, and without the intimation that the ghosts will rise again to trouble others. Indeed, rather, the sense is that the ghosts manifest themselves in order to change the course of the future so it should not repeat the past.
The House in question is the vicarage, an architecturally splendid building but impossible to maintain. The Church want to sell, to buy the Vicar something easier to handle, but the chances of a buyer seem slim until Charles is approached by thrusting businessman, Jack Evening, who is eager to acquire the house.
There’s no meeting of minds with Evening (pronounced with a short e at the start, as in ‘heaven’), not by Charles nor anybody, including his business partner Brent, in the first part of the book. Evening lives for business: he’s highly intelligent, ambitious, intent on rising in the world, with an eye for any opportunity, which is what the house represents.
The criticism of Evening is not merely near universal, but its expression is so familiar to the distaste with which J B Priestley held for the post War world, that I started wondering exactly whose novel I was reading here.
But to Charles’s surprise, Evening’s wife Joan is an old friend: they were at University thirty years ago, friends but not lovers, who haven’t seen each other in all that time. Joan is dubious about the vicarage, which most people find a depressing, off-putting place but the presence of Charles next door keeps her from opposing her husband’s plans, and thus a wholesale transformation of the property begins. This includes the construction of an extension, for Evening’s study, to be built and furbished in Georgian fashion – on the site of a former extension of the house that was not merely torn down but which had its very foundations destroyed.
So there’s a mystery to The Prospect, as the old Vicarage, awakening its original name. We’re also invited to anticipate that the reunion of Charles and Joan is going to lead to, well, complications. Which it does, but in the meantime, the house starts to reveal further mysteries.
Charles’s study of the deeds, followed by the Vicar’s combing of Parish Records, exposes a curious situation. The house’s second owner, George Marlow, died young, leaving The Prospect to his widow Mary, nee Wickham, a poor relation of the local Squire’s family. Mary then married John Wickham, her cousin, who was the Vicar, and a former Captain of Infantry, only three weeks after George’s death. After her death, she willed the house to the Church, as a Vicarage.
If that is not intriguing enough, there are two further details to consider. John Wickham was already known as an absentee priest, leaving all his duties to a Curate and never living in the Parish. But prior to Marlow’s death, Wickham was fully attentive to his duties. The first actual lapse is the recording of Marlow’s death, which is not in Wickham’s hand, and his departure from the Parish was clearly unplanned.
There’s also a marginal note on the Certificate of Marlow’s death. It’s in Wickham’s hand, though it’s very shaky, not bold and confident as before: Da himi veniam, paenitento.
Neill doesn’t translate, and the on-line Latin translators are useless, but the little Latin I know prompts me to read this as “For my sins, I repent.”
Whilst all of this is being ferreted out, a more direct problem asserts itself at the Prospect: ghosts. Evening, in his study, hears a woman’s voice where there is no woman. Charles, seeking respite from the noise of a house-warming dominated by Evening’s business contacts, is overwhelmed by some powerful force in the same room: overwhelmed enough that when Joan comes in search of him, he seizes her and starts kissing her passionately. Nor does she resist.
Thus we are presented with what was clearly some sort of three-cornered mystery whose general shape appears ripe to happen again in 1958.
Not that adultery is going to happen, however. Charles and Joan are respectable, middle-class, middle-aged people. It may take the incursion of what, in time, proves to be Mary Marlow’s ghost to open up Charles’s recognition that he has deep feelings for Joan, which the early chapters intimate is mutual, but this is 1958, and though feelings may be politely recognised up to a point, they will otherwise be kept decently repressed and certainly not be acted on. Divorce being a legal and social nightmare, as indeed it was in those days, is only a part of it: Joan has a sixteen year old daughter, Susie, who’s pert, intelligent and perceptive (enough to be a Robert Neill heroine if this were two to three hundred years earlier), for whose sake things are, and will remain, impossible.
The issue having been opened, the remainder of the first part of the novel is devoted to, simultaneously, Evening’s complete estrangement from everybody else’s underlying nature, the puzzling out of as much detail of the Marlow/Wickham affair as possible, and Charles and Joan’s steadfast refusal to act on the inevitable.
In its middle section, Joan (the former history student) writes up the findings of them all as a report. It’s based on all manner of records, gleaned from many places, but it largely rests on the discovery of Mary’s personal diary. This accounts (somewhat feebly) for the tendency of this section to turn, at critical points, into a Robert Neill historical novel in miniature, as the true events of the past, and their tragic outcome, are revealed.
But there’s a third, and final section, in which Neill takes a very interesting step. The revelation of the old story acts as an anti-climax. Its parallels to the potential situation developing now serve to further push Charles and Joan into their decent, Brief Encounters-esque, non-resolution, whilst Evening’s dedication to his work, to the exclusion of all else, intensifies.
At this point, Neill introduces Anis King. She’s been referred to scores of times already, as Miss King, Evening’s long-term, utterly dedicated secretary. The continual use of ‘Miss King’, on top of the almost motherly role she seems to play at the office, creates the intended impression, which Neill now bursts by introducing her as a very attractive, and winning young woman, in her early thirties but looking much younger.
Charles finds himself almost becoming Anis’s patron, as she plans to move into Oakley. For a moment, she threatens to derail the course of the narrative, but of greater importance is the fact that she provides a voice in support of Evening. She values him, values his potential, and she provides a much-needed counterpoint, by suggesting that Joan is at fault too. For all that Evening has neglected Joan’s social and emotional needs, he’s been working with dedication to provide a life for her, and she has failed to give him support in her turn.
Now that’s an argument that feminists will resent, not without reason, true those it is to the times. But the point being made is that Joan has been as neglectful of Evening’s needs as he has of hers, and it’s a point that bears mention after the book has presented such a one-sided interpretation thus far.
And Anis is pivotal to the denouement. Joan is, expectedly, jealous of Charles’s burgeoning relationship with her husband’s secretary, but so too, out of the blue, is Evening. And both Joan and he are pushed towards the only possible outcome by interventions on the part of Mary Marlow’s ghost. The couples shift towards each other, emerge as pairs whose minds meet. It’s as in the past, except that tragedy, death and guilt are replaced by a civilised ending (especially as the mess of Divorce, Fifties-style will be left till after the final page).
So Fair a House is an unusual book, and there are arguments for finding it inconsequential. I found myself being fascinated by it. Though it was written as an unusual approach to historical fiction, over two-thirds of the novel is contemporary, but by the fact of the fifty plus years since its first appearance, the book has become by default a historical fiction throughout.
The picture of Fifties life, in the deference to decency and respectability not yet undermined by the change of tone since the massively disruptive War, determines the actions the characters take. On one level, Evening is unreal: he lacks humanity, and the ability to see how others may think differently to him. Yet he’s as much a product of his times as any of the others, who are shaped by a mindset formed before the Second World War, who may lack the ambition in Evening, but who will never bring about change in the manner he and others like him will.
And whether it was consciously intended or not, which I doubt, the novel draws more attention to its time period by virtue of the contrast from Neill’s historical settings. You’ll note that, apart from mentioning Evening’s full name at first, I’ve referred to him by his surname throughout. With the exception of his wife, Joan, virtually no-one calls him Jack. Men didn’t use first names: it’s Evening, Torey, Brent, throughout – as opposed to Charles calling Joan by her christian name from the first, which is a familiarity permitted only by their old acquaintance, as demonstrated by Charles’s use of Miss King to address Anis, until she insists on her unusual name.
Fifties formality is as much an historical curiosity as anything Neill has ever written, but it’s a strange contrast to those purely historical books, where, despite the far greater stratification of society back then, saw the use of first names, freely and frankly, and surnames paired with titles such as Mr.
The change of style in Neill’s work must have taken his audience by surprise. I have no access to sales figures for any of his books to prove or disprove theories as to how his fans reacted, but for his next novel, Neill chose to stay in the present, and this time to write without any element of historical bent at all.