Class issues, Edwardian politics, and a big, beautiful British country house hanging the balance: these are the story elements that consumed millions of otherwise patriotic Americans when the BBC television series Downton Abbey made its stateside debut. With season two out of the way, and season three just swinging in to production, Sadie Jones has the fix: her twisty British country drama The Uninvited Guests (see our Q&A), centering on a house called Sterne and the family desperate to hold onto it.
Since her marriage to Edward Swift, three years after the sudden death of her first husband Horace Torrington, Charlotte had changed her position at the breakfast table in order to accommodate her new husband’s needs; specifically, aiding him in the spreading of toast and cutting of meat, owing to his having suffered the loss of his left arm at the age of twenty-three in an unfortunate encounter with the narrow wheels of a speeding gig, out of which he had fallen on the driveway of his then home in County Wicklow. Having always faced the window and wide view, now Charlotte sat on Edward’s left, and faced him.
Her eldest children, Emerald and Clovis, aged nineteen and twenty, respectively, but for whom the word ‘children’ is not inaccurate at the point at which we discover them, did not like this new arrangement. Nor did they like or approve of Edward Swift; single arm notwithstanding they found he did not fit.
Clovis Torrington balanced the pearl-handled butter knife on his middle finger and narrowed his dramatic eyes at his mother.
‘We can’t leave Sterne,’ he stated.
‘It would be a great shame,’ acknowledged his stepfather.
Clovis curled his lip, loathingly.
‘Clovis…’ His mother growled.
Edward thoroughly wiped his mouth with a napkin.
‘It’s all right, Charlotte,’ he said, kissing her forehead as he stood up. ‘I’ll know more when I return, Clovis. And neither you, nor your sisters – nor your mother - need worry about it until then, but enjoy Emerald’s birthday and try not to fret. I’m sorry I can’t be here for your guests.’
Charlotte stood, too, and linked her arm through his.
‘You’re both very naughty,’ she said, over her shoulder as they left the room.
Emerald had not spoken, but sat throughout breakfast rigid with self-restraint. Now she glanced at Clovis, tears blurring both the scowling sight of him and the vast tapestry that hung behind his head. It was a hunting scene of stags and hounds, a faded, many-layered narrative she knew by heart in all its leaping chases across the flowered forest floor.
‘”Fret!”’ said her brother with contempt at the word, stable-mates as it was with sulk and pet.
Emerald shook her head. In his present mood he was the very personification of all three. ‘Oh, Clovis,’ she said.
From the hall, Edward’s voice carried easily to them,
‘Clovis! Ferryman needs to be taken out. If you’ve time today I’d be very much obliged to you.’
His good-tempered authority would have been impressive – lovable – had the very fact of the man not been intolerable to them. Clovis was mutinous, ‘He ought to take his damned horse out himself.’
Emerald pushed her plate away.
‘He can’t very well if he’s in Manchester trying to save the house, can he?’ she said, and she got up and left the room by the other door so as not to encounter her mother or step-father again.
He did not go after her. Clovis wasn’t somebody who went after people, rather people tended to go after him.
Unable to escape her misery, Emerald wandered up and down in the kitchen for a few moments, aggravating Florence Trieves and Myrtle, and then went out into the garden by the side door.
It was the last day of April. She felt the extraordinary softness of the season on her face and she braced herself for a strict talking-to; if it must be audible, she ought at least to get some distance from the house.
The air was complicated with the smells of sharp new things emerging from damp soil. Small tatters of clouds dotted the watery sky. To her left was the door to the kitchen garden and stables. Ahead of her, reaching far and further, in the broadest geometrical sweep, was the country over which Sterne presided. It spread out beneath and beyond, reaching into straining, dazzling blue distance, where the fields became indistinct and hills dissolved to nothing.
The house sat facing the view on a piece of land so cleanly semi-circular, so strictly rounded, that it might have been a cake-stand left behind in the landscape by some refined society of giants. It was covered with deep, soft turf as one might lay a thick rug over a table, and all the busy pattern of fields, hedges, cows and villages scattered beyond, toy miniatures a child’s imagination would produce.
From the front of the house, the edge of the gardens formed a ha-ha between order and free nature. It was bordered by a knee-high sharp-trimmed box hedge, lest dogs should rush at it and fall off. Small children had been known to topple, although happily the slope, on falling, was much gentler than it first appeared. Clovis and Emerald, when much younger, had used to take running jumps off the apparent precipice, terrifying visitors unfamiliar with the topography, only to emerge laughing hilariously, covered with dandelion fluff or mud or clinging claws of long couch grass.
Emerald walked along the curve of the low box hedge with her head bowed, like a lonely merry-go-round horse.
‘This helpless grief over what amounts to a few rooms and a rather poor roof is irrational,’ she began, ‘and frankly –‘ she stopped walking, ‘ – ludicrous.’
She turned her face to the house, the windows of which glowed variously. ‘There’s no use looking at me like that,’ she said to it.
She crossed the gravel, and went towards the other part of the garden, where were the thick borders and sundial. ‘And there’s not even the excuse of ancestry!’ she said out loud again, and indignant.
And it was true; no generations of Torringtons had lived at Sterne. No generations of Torringtons had lived anywhere particularly, as far as they knew. They were a wandering, needs-must sort of family, who made their livings disparately, in clerking, mills or shipping; traveled to France for work in tailoring, or stopped at home in Somerset, Shropshire or Suffolk, to play some minor role in greater projects; designing a lowly component of a reaching Cathedral or girdered bridge. Some had been in business, one or two in service; there was an artist, some soldiers, all dead. All dead.
From THE UNINVITED GUESTS by Sadie Jones Copyright (c) 2012 by Sadie Jones. Reprinted courtesy of Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.