A lady and her lady’s maid – an unconventional relationship (England and Scotland, WWI and Interwar periods, 1914-1925): What better way to kick-off a new year of blogging than to start with an historical novel by the same author whose historical debut inspired this blog nearly 4 years ago. For The Echo of Twilight echoes the enchanting prose of British novelist Judith Kinghorn’s The Last Summer, also set at the brink of WWI.
Whereas the first novel transports us to a country estate in the south of England, Kinghorn’s newest (her 4th) takes us to two “pristine and loved” estates: Birling Hall, shining brightly in northern England’s Northumberland (the author’s birthplace) and Delnasay, atmospheric in the “purple mist” of the Scottish Highlands, where so much of the novel’s emotional heart happens.
Echoes of Downton Abbey reverberate here too. With a twist that’s central to the plot. For the customary relationship between a beautiful lady of two grand houses – Lady Ottoline Campbell – and her pretty lady’s maid, Pearl, is intense and complicated, growing in dependency and entanglement. Part servant, part dear friend, part mother/daughterly, theirs is a closeness that strengthens, shifts, struggles, and changes over time and circumstances. Roller-coaster emotions that seem to parallel the timeline of the devastating war – before, during, and after. As such, we see their liaison as sweet innocence in the summer before the war; followed by great pride and honor of dutiful service as Britain gears up to enter the war; then a clinging to each other as the war rages on; later a hardening as the war takes its toll; and a long-lasting aftermath.
Told in Pearl’s refined voice, most of the novel ensues over six years in three Parts. Parts I and II shape four years of Pearl’s life in domestic service, opening when she’s 23 after nine years of service positions, searching for a place to belong (“a small star in transit”). She finds it as a lady’s maid to Lady Ottoline, who treats Pearl as “someone relevant.” Part III takes place over two years post-war when Pearl moves to London and gains employment at the high-class Selfridge’s department store, echoing another British TV drama, Mr. Selfridge. An Epilogue illuminates five more years.
It’s important to highlight the culmination of Pearl’s domestic service at the end of WWI for it coincides with the historical ushering in of the rise of feminism and a changing society. Historically, this is when Britain granted the right to vote to all men and to women over 30.
Which means that besides the winning prose, the author’s strength lies in seamlessly weaving historical details and themes (and evocative landscapes) into an interesting, informative, fast-moving plot. Many faces of many themes run throughout: an “upstairs/downstairs” hierarchical class system; powerful loyalties to those served at home and to country; loneliness, loss, grief, and love. Love of family, friends, colleagues, and romantic love. A profound and moving love story that’s Pearl’s, but like everything else Ottoline is ensnarled in it too.
War is rumored when we meet Pearl, who’s “looking for love and home” and “betterment.” She’s on her way to Lady Ottoline’s beloved 14th century stone estate, having interviewed and accepted the prized position as her lady’s maid. Exalted because it “took a very superior sort of girl to be a lady’s maid.” Pearl prides herself on being that girl despite her emotionally affecting childhood, driving one of two unspoken mysteries.
That mystery is the identity of Pearl’s father. She’s never met him because her unwed mother committed suicide the day she was born. (Pearl was raised by her Aunt Kitty.) The other mystery that tugs at us surrounds the man Pearl falls madly in love with in Scotland: Ralph Stedman, a painter and Ottoline’s cousin, who lives in a cottage on the estate’s “10,000 acres of rivers, woods, hills, and fields.” These mysteries turn pages.
Some of my favorite lyricism comes when Pearl realizes she’s found the happiness she’s only dreamed of:
“As I gazed out across the glen, the river, beyond the alders and groves of silver birch to the mountains, the peace was overwhelming, newly extraordinary, deeper and more powerful than anything I’d known. And with it came a sense of belonging, a sort of contentment and connectedness. And I thought, even if nothing else happened in my life, this was enough: this sky, these hills, those high-up purples and blues, that dark bird’s wing, those feathery clouds and him.”
As the war heightens and darkens Pearl’s and Ottoline’s lives, so goes their relationship. “I need you,” blurts Ottoline, for whom Pearl responds faithfully and gratefully, reacting to her lady’s maternal warmth and kindnesses.
We’re told some downstairs staff are jealous of their exceptional relationship. Two downstairs characters touchingly prove otherwise: Rodney Watts, the butler, and Mrs. Lister, head cook. They will remind you of Mr. Carson and Mrs. Patmore of Downton Abbey. The Lagonda motor car featured in Ottoline’s shaky driving skills (reflective of her erratic behavior), and Pearl’s chauffeuring role will also bring back scenes from that PBS Masterpiece show.
The rest of the upstairs family includes Lord Hector Campbell, whose fuzzy position in the Foreign Office necessitates stretches of time spent in London, particularly during the war effort; and sons Hugo, 21, Oxford-schooled, and Billy, 19, an Eton student, who we come to know best and care most about as he’s the golden boy Ottoline’s acutely attached to.
Pearl’s initial impressions were of a “very happy household” where every day felt “like Christmas.” Although, she did sense an “ineffable sadness” about her ladyship, which surfaces in ways good and bad.
On the balance between happiness and sadness, the author has crafted a novel of a nation at war that never forgets to remind us of the beauty of life, nature, and experiencing true love.
Speaking of love, if you love historical novels, this one, I think, will inspire your new year’s resolution to read more in 2017!
PS My last post on Victoria cited another PBS Masterpiece show, a mini-series based on the novel. Update on when it airs: January 15th. Also: After Queen Victoria’s reign, King George V became the next British monarch. Thus, The Echo of Twilight follows the historical timeline of British succession. Mentioned is the King’s Prime Minister, H.H. Asquith, who made the momentous decision to enter the war, and Lord Kitchener, his Secretary of State for War.