Living in a White Elephant.

Book Review for “A House in the Country” by Ruth Adam.

Summary: “Six friends have spent the dark, deprived years of World War II fantasizing – in air raid shelters and food queues – about an idyllic life in a massive country house. With the coming of peace, they seize on a seductive newspaper ad and take possession of a neglected 33-room manor in Kent, with acres of lavish gardens and an elderly gardener yearning to revive the estate’s glory days. But the realities of managing this behemoth soon dawn, including a knife-wielding maid, unruly pigs, and a paying guest who tells harrowing stories of her time in the French Resistance, not to mention the friends’ conscientious efforts to offer staff a fair 40-hour work week and paid overtime. And then there’s the ghost of an overworked scullery maid …”

Age: Adult; Genre: Literary, Women, Fiction; Setting: Contemporary, England; Other Categories: Classics, Vintage, Re-release.

A house in the Country

This novel, originally published in 1957 (the year I was born, by the way) is also described as “a humorous look at a group of friends living together in a former manor house.” That’s a very precise summary, and in fact, from Amazon it says that the novel was based on Adam’s actual experience living in the country with five other people and her children. Now, this is one of the things that made me wonder what was fiction here and what was reality. Yes, I know, that can sometimes make a person feel daunted, but I actually loved that there was no way for me to know what was which. In fact, I think that this is why this novel is so much fun – because it feels so very real!

Let me be precise. Adam writes this book as if it is actually a diary or journal of the eight years she lived in this stately, 33-room mansion located in Kent – one of England’s most beautiful areas. Obviously, the nearby villages and such were fictional, but I’m guessing that much about the manor house was based on fact, because Adam describes much of it in very graphic details. This includes the river that runs through the property, and all the many buildings – both serviceable and dilapidated – not to mention all those parts of the house! Other things that felt very real were how they furnished the parts of the house that they each decided to occupy, together with the many odd persons who they had as staff to keep such a behemoth running as smoothly as possible, even when things broke down completely.

Now, when we think of these types of stately buildings that border on being castles, we sometimes assume that those that reside in them are all wealthy. However, Adam shows how this is nowhere near the truth, and several times in the book these residents and staff fluctuate in both their dynamics and numbers, making the home economically unstable. This happens enough that there are several instances when you think they’ll all give up the ghost (including the one that local legend believes haunts the place) and move back to London. And yet, with all these expenses, finances aren’t the reason why this experiment eventually comes to an end, but you’ll have to read the book to find out why they finally pack it all in and leave.

Of course, this wouldn’t have been half as fun if Adam hadn’t written with such wit and charm. Now, I’m not saying that this is laugh out loud funny, but this is one of those books that you’ll find yourself smiling while you read each passage. Again, it all feels so real, so natural, so casual, that every time something goes wrong, or the group find themselves in one kind of difficult situation or another, that you’ll be amazed (but not doubtful) as to how they get around things in order to just muddle through it all. Furthermore, there’s a bit of politics laced into this story as Adam slips in how the post-war era moves from this class-based hierarchy to an increasing social welfare state with the introduction of many of the safety nets that the British are (mostly) proud of to this day. Adam seems to make fun of some of these programs, even as we feel that she doesn’t actually seem to mind most all of them. These include things like the 40-hour work-week, overtime, minimum wage, and other social benefits for employees, all of which this group bestow on their staff, with a few humorous work-arounds along the way.

By the way, I checked up on Adam after reading this novel and found out she was very much an activist and promoter of the Labour Party, so I guess she wanted to give a few fun nods to these “radical” ideas, even as this group of people were ironically building themselves a type of commune. Again, I think this is what makes this book not only charming but so realistic and honest. What can I say besides I loved this book and I’m giving it a full five out of five stars because… it is fun! Go on, you know you want to read it!

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https://www.deanstreetpress.co.uk/Dean Street Press re-released the 1957 novel “A House in the Country” by Ruth Adam on August 3, 2020. This book is available (via the following affiliate links) from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Walmart (Kobo) US (eBook), the website eBooks.com, iTunes (iBook), The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), new or used from Alibris, used from Better World Books (promoting libraries and world literary), as well as from as well as from Bookshop.org (to support independent bookshops, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic) or an IndieBound store near you. I would like to thank the publishers for sending me an ARC of this novel (and I apologize for not having the time to read and review it before now. But, better late than never, right?).

7 thoughts on “Living in a White Elephant.

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