A few weeks ago, I put a request out on Twitter for authors to write reviews of their most favourite books. Lynn Shepherd, author of A Treacherous Likeness offered to write a review. Here is her review of Statues In A Garden by Isabel Colegate.
“The girls in the Gothic summer-house were talking about love: it was all very suitable. They wore their morning clothes, Alice a long blue skirt, tightly belted, and a striped blouse with a short tie, Kitty a white muslin dress and long black stockings: they had been carrying hats…”
Paperback edition published by Penguin on 26 May 1983 (originally published 1964)
This book has been one of my favourites for a long time, though it’s less well known than the more famous The Shooting Party, which was made into a film in 1985. Like that book, Statues in a Garden is set just before the outbreak of the First World War, in the golden summer of 1914 – “The sun shone all summer. Everybody knows that." The whole book, therefore, is overshadowed by the conflict that we know is coming, but the characters clearly do not.
The story centres on the wealthy Weston family, the cabinet minister Aylmer and his beautiful wife, Cynthia, a society hostess, and takes place both in London and at Charleswood, their idyllic country house – “If ever you have had dreams of a beautiful house they were dreams of Charleswood.” As he is increasingly engrossed in the ramifications of the ‘Irish question’, she tries to distract herself with arranging their daughter Violet’s wedding to a young officer. Preparations for the marriage are the backdrop for the unfolding of the relationships within the rest of the family, including the eldest son Edmund, the younger daughter and suffragette-sympathiser Kitty, and the erratic and unpredictable Philip, who is Aylmer’s nephew, but has lived with the family since his parents died when he was a child. Alice, Kitty’s new governess, provides another and more oblique perspective, and we are also given glimpses of the lives of rest of the household below stairs, and their affairs eventually collide tragically and violently with those of the family.
This book is far richer and more insightful than Downton Abbey, but it will be a delicious treat for fans of the TV series. It is a short book, and an elegant one, but while it is light it is certainly not lightweight. Just as the way of life the Westons exemplify is doomed to destruction on the fields of France, so the family themselves are destroyed by secrets, lies and unforgiveable private transgressions. Nostalgic without being cloyingly sentimental, it is both beautifully written and beautifully constructed, and will linger with you long after you finish it.
Lynn Shepherd is the author of A Treacherous Likeness, which recreates the dark and mysterious lives of the poet Shelley and his wife Mary, author of Frankenstein.
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