Property ladder: revisiting Norah Lofts’ Suffolk House
It’s said you should never go back, never return to old haunts. In general I find that sound advice. But sometimes, just sometimes, it doesn’t apply. All the same, when I once again encountered Norah Lofts’ superb Suffolk House trilogy leading us from the late 14th century to the 1950s by tracking those who develop, inhabit and are connected with a single dwelling – the House at Old Vine – I hesitated. I’d loved the books so much when I’d read them as a green girl; wouldn’t I risk spoiling memories, courting disillusionment by having another look through eyes more clear-sighted but far more jaded?
The short answer, happily, is ‘no’. I was enthralled throughout, being unable to stop until I’d gone from The Town House (1959) to The House at Old Vine (1961) and finally arrived at the end in The House at Sunset (1963). When I’d completed them, I felt thoroughly bereft – as if an old and very good friend had just left after a delightful visit.
The writing is deft, driving the narrative forward in sure style. The principal focus is upon character – even subsidiary characters have utterly distinctive voices and very often contribute significantly to the plots: everybody is inter-connected. The books consist of a succession of linked short stories, and this structure allows the voices to be heard, each moving forward in time, as each new chapter in the house’s history enters a different period. These characters’ lives never progress smoothly, with corruption and graft in public life, betrayals and lies in private, and suffering evoked starkly rather than glossed over. Throughout there is a firm recognition of the fact that people do not always get their just desserts, and that luck or chance may intervene or not – nothing, and nobody, being entirely predictable. In The Town House, after savage fate has snatched away all that he values, we see Martin reflecting bitterly: ‘He might have known. It was all part of his life’s pattern; every small mitigation of misery had been immediately followed by some new misfortune.’ At that moment his is the authentic voice of despair, and understandably so. Yet, due to a series of opportunities and decisions that turn out better than expected, Martin builds the eponymous house and goes on to become a successful and moderately rich man – albeit one indelibly marked by his tragic losses (I suspect Norah Lofts would have given the so-called power of positive thought short shrift – yet another mark in her favour, if I’m right).
Although Lofts has an extraordinary breadth of sympathy with her characters, the trilogy contains some notable villains. For instance there is an acute portrait of a chilly murderer, showing the warped inevitability of his plans and actions. Another man gains preferment and a home for life by avoiding responsibility for a fatal accident which he caused. A little girl keeps quiet about a hiding place, resulting in an agonising death for the hidden one: a fact that overshadows the rest of her life, as we witness its unfolding. Equally, Lofts emphasises how little of the recent past is recalled, let alone events further back in history, by those not immediately involved. Adam Thorpe, in Ulverton (1992), uses a similar episodic structure and handles one or two broadly similar themes, for which he received plaudits. Whereas Lofts, may be – and far too often is – dismissively designated a ‘romantic novelist’.
There is some justification for this, in that she is principally known for historical novels covering the lives of people named after counties or countries (Katherine of Aragon gets a look in, as does Eleanor of Aquitaine), or exotic activities in even more exotic lands (the Dutch East Indies, for example). These are workmanlike, relating well-known stories in well-crafted fashion. But they’re not a patch on what Lofts can do when she’s focusing entirely on home in all its aspects.
Norah Lofts was born in Norfolk in 1904 and spent much of her life in Bury St Edmunds (Suffolk), where she died in 1983. When she uses her homeland as a setting she is clearly comfortable and on firm ground, nourishing her craft and allowing it to flourish. From the Peasants’ Revolt to the faint, cash-strapped stirrings of post-World War II ‘recovery’, her fictitious Suffolk house remains a constant – almost, but very tellingly not quite, a character. It goes from modest home-plus-business premises to desirable property to near-dereliction as the years pass, echoing the ups and downs of the inhabitants, their relatives and neighbours as they rise and fall according to their own fortunes and failings. Drinking, gambling and illicit love affairs are handled factually and without judgement, and strands of disease, injury and heredity are also woven into the narrative – as they are in life.
Marching alongside social history and psychology come industry and commerce, crucial concerns here as they are to us all. Work, production and money are emphasised in ways that are strangely satisfying to the more prosaic reader: the kind who always wants to ask ‘how the hell do they manage …?’ and related questions. How things are made is explained, as well as why, where and by whom. The cultivation of medicinal herbs, the production of butter and cheese and the beginnings of cloth production and silk-weaving are covered realistically, securely planted in their rightful places in everyday life. Change in a wider sphere also features strongly, including the after-effects of the Black Death; the rôle of settled monastic orders followed by their destruction in the Reformation, and the influxes of outsiders from near and far. Throughout the trilogy runs the historical English concern with freedom and self-determination – and Lofts displays all the passionate interest in reform of the time (‘50s-early ’60s), combined with a keen eye for the details of implementation.
A secondary school teacher before taking up full-time writing, Lofts doesn’t pull punches. People go hungry and the causes and effects are described in detail which is – characteristically – sufficiently economical to inform without distracting from the narrative. The sense of unreality and insecurity prevailing under Cromwell is explored in vivid scenes that demonstrate the fragilities and strengths of social bonds in country areas, where fear and tenuous trust necessarily go hand-in-hand complicated by religious divisions. As Oliver Stanton reflects:
‘Father had done well out of the Civil War and the peace which followed. At the beginning he had been rather more than a yeoman farmer, for he owned five hundred acres and a substantial house. After the war he had been able to buy, very cheaply, twelve hundred acres and two big houses, the property sequestrated from Royalists. The Restoration hit him a little, for one of the owners returned and claimed his house and about three hundred acres of land. Thereafter Father regarded him as one of the beasts of the Revelation who would eventually be cast into the bottomless pit’ (The House at Old Vine © The Estate of Norah Lofts). The humour is darkly ironic, of a dry, English kind.
The trilogy is solidly grounded in Suffolk, and the narrative arises naturally from the place and its buildings and activities. In fact, the setting is based on Norah Loft’s home town (Bury St Edmunds). And the ‘based on’ is significant: if you know the place, fine; but familiarity is not obligatory. I didn’t know the town or area when I first read the books. My second reading followed the acquisition of local knowledge, which enhanced it for me. But Norah Lofts’ Suffolk is imaginatively as well as factually far removed from Thomas Hardy’s Wessex. She is as much interested in the practicalities as the psychology of how ordinary people conduct ordinary lives in what are frequently extraordinarily trying circumstances. And she does so from a standpoint of genuine concern, of depth of interest far removed from mere curiosity. Lofts’ characters are robust; recognisable. There is a considerable if quiet power in her writing: how many other writers could make an unprepossessing planning officer so fascinating, and cause us to admire the integrity that ultimately loses him what we may assume to be his only chance of happiness and belonging, of security? He loses, and so must leave the area. The place in general, the house in particular, can demand a very high price – and it is not always worth paying.
In the end, the house is about to be revived – we trust, as must Frances Benyon, the deserted and near-destitute young mother who takes it on. Thus the trilogy ends on a note of hope that is very far from blind:
‘All around me the dusk thickened; the old boards, having been trodden on, creaked. The old house seemed to gather strength and purpose. Battered, both of us, but not yet completely defeated. Shaken, abandoned … but ready to go on again, together …’ (The House at Sunset © The Estate of Norah Lofts). The trilogy is an imaginative tour de force. Everything true and natural in provincial life and human nature – however ugly, awkward, marginal or hard to face – is present. In its way it’s a tribute to both lost forms of reality and the enduring adaptability of the human spirit.
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