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Peculiar Ground by Lucy Hughes-Hallett

Lucy Hughes-Hallett is an author new to me though she has had a long career as an award-winning journalist, critic and historian. Her first novel, Peculiar Ground, published earlier this year in England, is now released in North America.

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The story begins in 1663 on the Wychwood Estate of Lord Woldingham. What I loved immediately was that I had to look up a word before I’d read even two sentences – dendrology - the science and study of wooded plants, particularly trees and shrubs - and it is the specialty of Mr. Norris, the landscape architect hired by Lord Woldingham to design and plant the grand gardens he envisions. This is the age of competitive gardening and the plan is indeed grand, boulevards and fountains, the bigger the better. And a great wall is planned, to enclose the estate, a place contained, separate from the rest of the world.

Lord and Lady Woldingham have only recently returned from exile in Europe, but with the Restoration of royalty in England they, and others, are coming home with great optimism and expectation of good times to come. In the first sixty pages we are immersed into the world of Restoration England and Lord Woldingham’s grand plans, but also a sad tragedy that haunts all who follow.

Then it is 1961, and a whole new cast of characters people the Wychwood Estate. Nell and Dickie are the children of the estate manager, agent to Christopher Rossiter who now owns the property, and his wife Lillian. City folk, friends of the Rossiters spend weekends at Wychwood, riding, playing, dressing for dinner – dancing. There are eccentrics and unconventional men and women. The villagers who work on the estate, as their fathers and grandfathers did before them back to the time of Lord Woldingham, meet in the pub for a drink, a talk and a song.

It is very much the Cold War era, the border between East and West Germany is closed, dividing a country, it’s people and the world, and another wall is built. Some of the characters in this contemporary part of the book spend time in both Germany and England where they may or may not be working for the British Government.

By 1973, things are changing again at Wychwood, and the house has become a salon of sorts. The garden designed by Norris is, of course, now mature and there have been additions over the years. Years pass, and by 1989 we are still following the lives of many of the same characters but the configurations of relationships have changed. There have been deaths, and children born. Those who were children are now adults, married and having children of their own. There are celebrity characters and world events that serve as touchstones for the time.

One of the things I loved most about this book was the passing of time – and the jewels of detail sprinkled throughout. The mention of George Macdonald’s The Princess and the Goblins, one of my favourite books from childhood, a tale of courage overcoming evil. Children once read these sorts of terrifying books. We read the real Brothers Grimm, not the prettied up versions. Educators didn’t need to look for books to encourage resilience as we were raised reading them.

Then it is 1989, and the Berlin wall comes down. Salman Rushdie becomes the target of a fatwa. Life at Wychwood is both the same and very different as world affairs affect those who come and go.

Lucy Hughes-Hallett knows the world she writes about, she grew up on a grand estate in Oxfordshire where her father was agent. We know the contemporary world she writes about, and she brings the world of the 1600s to life. It is so beautifully described, and fully peopled, from the privileged on the Wychwood estate, to those fleeing London and the plague. This is a great big, glorious novel, full of superstition and coincidence, and sure to be as widely read here in 2018 as it has been in England in 2017.



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