The House at Tyneford by Natasha Solomons
The House at Tyneford by Natasha Solomons is a novel that will appeal to all of those who are watching the BBC series Downton Abbey – and who is not!? This novel captures a time and place, taking the reader to another world. There is an old-fashioned quality to the storytelling and the writing, and you will find yourself immersed in this novel from the very start.
We meet the Landau family, parents Anna, an opera singer, and Julian, a novelist, and their daughters Margot and Elise. They live in affluent comfort in Vienna until the days just before the Second World War. Anna and Julian are well aware of the danger they will all face if they remain in Vienna. Their eldest daughter, Margot, has just married and is emigrating to the United States with her husband – sorry to be leaving her family but excited to begin her married life in a new country. Elise is granted a visa to go the England to work as a maid – this is the only way her parents have found to get her out of Europe to a place where she will be safe.
So, we have 19 year old Elise Landau packing her fashionable clothes, including a ball gown and her Hermes scarves, and off she goes to work in the country house of the Rivers family in Dorset. This girl who was always served by a maid herself, whose meals were made by the family cook, whose baths were run for her, is now the most junior of the domestic staff in a British country house. It is a difficult transition, made all the more so because she so desperately misses her family and fears for their safety.
Anna and Julian are struggling to get visas themselves so that they can leave Austria for New York where Anna has been promised work with the Metropolitan Opera. As time passes there are more and more expensive bribes to demanded in order to secure a visa, and everyone knows that time is running out for the Jews of Vienna.
As Elise observes the family who employ her, the household staff and the local villagers she describes a life that is lost in time – as she later says she “had not realized I was living in Arcadia until it was time to leave”. The Second World War changed the structure of British society forever, as the old aristocratic families struggled to hold on to their estates. Only a generation after the First World War young men are once again going off to war, many not returning, leaving elderly parents without heirs. Young women who left home to work in the factories and in the fields, will never again to be content to be treated simply as decoration.
Natasha Solomons knew she wanted to write something about the Jewish girls who came to England to work as domestic help during the Second World War. Many, like her character Elise, came from homes where they had been the waited upon, not those doing the waiting. The household staff at Tyneford is very proper indeed, we learn all about the “behind the scenes” operation of a grand country house, standards must be kept no matter how difficult this becomes, as the country is more and more affected by the war.
In the beginning the war seems far away for all but Elise, who listens for news of what is happening in Europe. It is not until England enters the war and the young men leave to fight that life really changes at Tyneford House. Elise now works in the fields as well as in the house. She has come to love this part of England, the sea and the fields, the people for whom she works and lives with, the fishermen and the villagers – but still she misses her family and worries about their fate.
At the end of the story it is revealed that the novel was inspired by a real place. Tyneford House and the village surrounding it are based on the ‘ghost village’ of Tyneham in Dorset. This house was eventually taken over during the war with the owner, and the whole village evacuated. The house and village are still deserted – a beautiful piece of countryside and coastline frozen in time – the time that Natasha Solomons has so perfectly captured in The House at Tyneford.