The strange allure behind walls of a country house
Fiction: Peculiar Ground, Lucy Hughes-Hallett, Fourth Estate, hdbk, 496 pages, €20.49
In 1616, Ben Jonson wrote 'To Penshurst', a poem and love letter to the medieval country pile of Robert Sidney, the First Earl of Leicester, which, unlike recent Jacobean monstrosities, was not "built to envious show/ of touch or marble". Since then, the British affection for stately homes has rarely diminished, and has now - ironically, in their twilight - become a national obsession.
In her capacious debut novel, the English critic and biographer Lucy Hughes-Hallett proves she is no Julian Fellowes. Peculiar Ground, set at Wychwood, a fictional country house in Oxfordshire, is beholden to the strange allure of the house and garden, rather than its inhabitants.
The sprawling estate is shown, through 300-odd years of history, to be a place of walls and borders - to keep people in and, more importantly, keep them out. Wychwood consumes Lil, the 1960s lady of the manor, while Dionysian youths hurdle over psychological barriers to promote the hedonism of the early 1970s. The staginess of the setting is unabashed: illicit relationships come to light in architecturally significant places, while in a semi-circular hollow, plays and masques are performed, including a re-enactment of Joshua at the walls of Jericho.
The novel begins in 1663, just after the Restoration. It is a time of paranoia and the house's owner, Lord Woldingham, is not "especially proud of his aristocracy. He has learnt how useless it was to save him from the humiliations of exile".
He charges John Norris, a "landskip-maker", to "create an Eden encompassing the house", then an "impassible barricade" beyond it. ("Are we making a second Paradise here, or a prison?" wonders Norris.) Witchcraft and old allegiances linger uneasily about the place, but Norris's work offers Woldingham solace: "The water tumbles precisely as we intended it should, a roaring mass of wild energy transformed into fluid, obedient silver."
Hughes-Hallett's eye for detail and her ear for diction is a treat in the two 17th-century sections which bookend the novel. Things stall, though, in the book's middle, when world affairs of the mid- and late-20th century jostle for prominence alongside fictional characters - if they're fictional at all. Antony, "like one of Racine's confidantes, a person of negligible interest per se", is a gay art dealer and former spy with a whiff of Mr Blunt about him. In the late 1980s, Selim runs into trouble when he publishes an extract from a novel that sounds quite a lot like The Satanic Verses. The following exchange at the height of the Cold War in 1961 sums up this wearyingly dutiful exposition: "'But what does Khrushchev want?' 'Dear Christopher, if we knew that... Berlin is maddening for the Russians. It's maddening for everyone. It's geographical nonsense. For Khrushchev this rush for the exit is a humiliation. It shames him internationally'."
In her own plot, too, Hughes-Hallett over-explains. Nell, for example, the clever land agent's daughter, joins the Civil Service after going to Oxford University and writes a draft report about prisons and how those incarcerated are driven to replicate society's structures in miniature. The same could be said, of course, for Wychwood.
Still, there are excellent points. In her award-winning biography, The Pike (2013), Hughes-Hallett brilliantly peeled away the layers of the egotistical Italian poet Gabriele D'Annunzio; in her novel, whenever her focus is tighter, she begins to meet the high standards set by her non-fiction. A lyrical thread that runs through her tale of Wychwood's rises and falls are the things that remain constant through time, such as the deer who nibble the grass and the oak tree whose remaining canopy looks like "the back of a piece of embroidery done by fumble-fingered giants".
Her affection for flora and fauna is infectious, and nature, in return, furnishes her with some of the novel's more effective symbolism. Wychwood forest, we read in an italicised aside, "is home to a rare strain of hellebore. It's an unlovely plant with black antennae sprouting from the centre of its greeny-yellow bracts, of interest only to botanists, but to them a treasure. It grows nowhere else in the British Isles."
Much has been made - perhaps too much - of the fact that Hughes-Hallett has written her first novel at 65. The result is a baggy beast, but it's also elegant, inventive, mystical and, dare I say, promising. I can't help feeling that she is only just getting started.