Lucy Hughes-Hallett, prizewinning biographer and cultural historian, here turns her talents to fiction with a first novel, Peculiar Ground. The story begins in 1663 as the Royalist earl of Woldingham returns to his grand estate, Wychwood, following his exile during the upheaval of the English Civil War and the subsequent periods of the Commonwealth and Protectorate. In his absence, his cousin Cecily presided over the place, thus keeping it in the family. Now, even with the Stuarts back on the throne and his house and lands returned, the earl feels uneasy and has caused a great wall to be erected around the entire estate. His hope is to create his own little Eden, and to this end he has employed an ingenious landscape designer, John Norris, who is pushing forward plans for two great avenues of trees, a sequence of three linked lakes, and a prodigious fountain. Also in his employ are Robert Rose, an architect; George Goodyear, head forester; a man simply called Lane, the estate steward; and another, Armstrong, whose special care is game: deer and pheasant, chiefly.
But all is not well. A group of radical religious dissenters continue their heterodox worship in a meetinghouse on the grounds, a structure that has been built over a relict of the Romans, a mosaic depicting two boys with joined hands. The image possesses great, if highly mysterious, import. An old woman, accompanied by a young, rustic boy, flits through the woods. She is Meg Leafield and is thought to be a witch. One of the earl’s young sons drowns. Cecily dresses up Meg’s young companion in clothes similar to the dead boy’s, to whom he bears a striking likeness. Something very strange happens — and with that we leave the seventeenth century for some 300 pages.
The story next makes landfall in 1961, as we find that the estate has new owners, the Rossiters, whose son has also drowned. And, just to continue on this parallel track, the place is peopled by the descendants of the earl of Woldingham’s men. Once again we have a Goodyear and an Armstrong. A Hugo Lane is the steward or land agent and lives on the estate with his wife and children. An old woman called Meg is in circulation, up to a lot of witchy business in the shape of herbal nostrums and charms. A house party finds among the guests another Rose (this one a restaurateur, designer, and libertine). There is also an Anthony Blunt−style spy, a freelance journalist, a luscious young siren, and an enfant terrible. There are carryings-on. The wall surrounding the parklands still stands — but everyone’s attention is drawn to another one just going up in Berlin.
The novel goes on to give full throttle to the theme of walls and continues to dangle the notion that there is a parallel or even a connection between events of the distant past and those of the present. We follow the lives of the twentieth-century characters over ensuing years, the story making further stops in 1973 (an invitation-only pop concert on the walled estate) and 1989 (and the fall of the Berlin Wall), before returning to the seventeenth century, to 1665, just in time for the bubonic plague, the wall in this moment serving to keep fleeing Londoners, nearby villagers, and their attendant contagion out of the estate.
In the novel’s favor, I can say that it shows a fine sense of time and place in each venue, and there are some terrific set pieces: a battle against a raging fire, the experience and calamitous outcome of the storm dubbed the Great Wind of 1987 (here set in 1989), and the evacuation of plague-stricken London. A number of images are truly arresting, one being a waterfront street ending at a great wall of steel: the vast hull of a ship rising to inconceivable heights. There are, too, a couple of excellently drawn self-important characters, though their time on the stage is sadly brief. All in all, however, the story has an awful rattle of devices: the recurrent theme of walls, random echoes of the past, some portentous stories-within-stories, and that truly irksome mosaic — which is meant, it is suggested, to explain . . . something. Rather than pulling the story together, these literary maneuvers serve to diminish it, making it serve as a showcase, while the plot itself becomes a litter of miscellaneous parts. Perhaps next time — and I hope there will be one — Hughes-Hallett will leave these literary exercises behind and get on with the story.
Image of Bibury Court by John Menard via Wikipedia.