From the author of I Capture the Castle comes a delightful, funny tale of complicated sibling relationships, friendship, and forbidden love, set in 1970s EnglandSuspecting her husband, George, of dalliances in the city, May decides it is high time the family moved to the country. Determined to create the perfect home there, she finds an idyllic country house set in a lilac grove and sets about furnishing it properly and cooking enormous meals. She even manages to convince her less well-off sister, June, to move into a cozy cottage on the grounds with her husband Robert. This new set-up is very much a family affair as June's husband Robert just happens to be George's brother: the two sisters are married to two brothers. At first both families seem to be settling in well, sharing delicious meals and having fun times together. Their grown-up children, Hugh and Corinna, visit from London and there even seems to be a hint of romance in the air for them, while the surviving grandparents from both sides of the family move into the big house and forge new friendships. But the arrival of a cantankerous great aunt will reveal the cracks in the family's tangled relationships and will even threaten to unveil the greatest secret of all—while May thought moving George to the country would put a stop to his affairs, he has begun to fall in love with his sister-in-law, June. The death of a beloved character will, however, turn the tables again and lead to the ultimate, happy, denouement.
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About the Author
Date of Birth:May 3, 1896
Date of Death:November 24, 1990
Place of Birth:Whitefield, Lancashire, England
Place of Death:Uttlesford, Essex, England
Education:Academy of Dramatic Art, 1914
Read an Excerpt
A Tale of Two Families
By Dodie Smith
Hesperus PressCopyright © 1970 Dodie Smith
All rights reserved.
As the taxi neared the signpost saying 'To the Dower House only', May told the driver to stop. 'We'll walk the rest of the way.'
The driver stopped but said he could easily drive them. 'The lane's narrow but the surface is all right. I often came here when the old ladies were still alive.'
May said she would rather walk, then turned to her sister, June. 'I want to sort of sneak up on the house.'
June, conscious of unsuitable shoes, asked the driver how long they would have to walk. He said not above five minutes, on which May briskly got out of the taxi, to be followed, less briskly, by June. Then May, having discovered on the way from the station that the driver had missed his lunch, told him to drive to the nearest village and get some. 'I'll treat you. And you can take at least an hour. I shall need all of that to explore the place.'
'Okay and thanks,' said the driver. 'And when I come back I'll drive up to the front door. Might be raining again by then. Well, February Filldyke, as they say.'
'Nice man,' said May as the taxi drove off. I haven't heard February Filldyke since I was a child. What ages it is since I was last in the country.'
'Yet of course you have the right clothes for it,' said June. 'But you would have even if you were suddenly asked to go yachting or cross the Sahara.'
'Well, I dare say I could rig up something. Here, hold up!' She shot out a steadying hand. 'You'll need some proper country shoes when you come to stay with us here. I'll treat you.'
'Don't be so sure you're coming here. The house may be a horror.'
'But I told you, George liked it when he came to see the old girls about their investments. And it's so miraculous to get the chance of renting such a house. It could be sold for an enormous amount if it wasn't entailed. I do love this twisty lane. And there are signs of spring already. Those dangly things are lambs' tails, later on they get all furry yellow and come off on you.'
'This is going to be a long five minutes' walk,' said June.
May thought this possible as there was still no sign of any house, but she continued to find things to praise: the overgrown hedges, the tall, still-dripping trees, the brilliant green of the grassy verges, the freshness of the air. And after several more bends in the lane they saw a white wooden gate standing open. Once through this they looked across a large, circular lawn surrounded by a gravel drive. And now at last they were face to face with the house.
'Much too large,' said June.
'Not at all. If you knew how I'm longing for space, after that poky flat.'
June laughed. 'You can't call that fabulous flat poky.'
'I can and do. The fact that it's expensive doesn't make it spacious.' May stood still, gazing at the house. 'Georgian, I think – no, the roof looks Queen Anne. I'd say Queen Anne refronted in the late eighteenth century.'
'The things you know about architecture!'
'I told you, I've been reading up about country houses. Those downstairs windows look Victorian.'
'So does the conservatory. That's pretty hideous.'
'I don't agree. It could be amusing if one got the right line on it. And that big room on the left balances it. That could be an orangery, with those tall windows, except that it looks fairly new. Well, come on. Shall we go across the lawn or by the drive?'
'The lawn will be wet. And I bet the whole house will be damp. We're in a hollow here.'
'We are not in a hollow. I shall strike you if you go on disparaging everything.'
They crunched along the gravel drive to the front porch, which suggested the lych gate of a churchyard.
'A bit ye olde, this,' said May. 'Porches so often spoil houses. But we can grow things up it. Now the key should be hanging on the right of the door. Well, it isn't. I'll read the letter again.'
There were wooden seats on the inside of the porch. They sat on them and May took a letter from her handbag and read it aloud:
Dear Mrs Clare,
I'm so sorry but I shan't be able to meet you on Thursday, as arranged. I have to represent my grandfather at a family funeral – they keep on happening, I'm sure they're taking years off my life. I'll be home on Friday but I'm not sure what time. Perhaps Saturday would be a good day for you? But you may still prefer Thursday and to be on your own. You'll find some of my great-aunts' furniture in the dining room and drawing-room. It goes well with the William Morris wallpapers (original and still in almost perfect condition). But of course you may loathe the furniture and the wallpapers. I'll leave the central heating on.
Just one thing: If there's anything you want to know please don't ask at the Hall. Though my grandfather has agreed that the Dower House shall be let, it's best not to remind him that it's going to be. Perhaps you could leave a message – I'll put paper and pencil in the hall – and then I could telephone you. And if you do decide to come on Saturday, I'll be here.
Yours sincerely, Sarah Strange
P.S. Key on nail right of porch – outside, hidden under the overhang. Key of the staff cottage under its doormat.
May handed the letter to June. 'Curious handwriting, isn't it?' 'Almost illiterate.'
'Oh, no – just peculiar. So spiky. Now where's that key? Outside the porch, she says.'
May now found the key without difficulty and opened the front door. A wave of warm air came to meet them.
'So much for your damp house,' said May.
'It'd be damp if it didn't have central heating.'
'Well, it does have central heating. George told me the old ladies had it put in because they suffered so much with rheumatism – one of them was crippled with it. This is a good hall. Looks as if it's just been decorated.'
The panelling had been painted white. Doors stood open on either side. May, going through one of them gasped.
'My goodness, this wallpaper might be new!'
It was a deep pink, with a raised design in ruby red.
'You couldn't keep this furniture,' said June. 'Or the curtains and carpet.'
'I certainly shall. Everything goes with the wallpaper. I shall get to like it all, just as I've got to like art nouveau.'
'I haven't and never shall – this or art nouveau. Though I'll admit the wallpaper's handsome.'
'That's big of you.'
'Of course it's gloomy on a dark morning. Now let's find the drawing room.'
It was on the other side of the hall. Here the wallpaper was a deep green against a yellowish background. The furniture included a cabinet packed with ornaments.
June, peering in on them, said, 'Don't tell me you like these.'
'I shall, when I know more about them. I must read up about William Morris.'
'I wonder if there's a William Morris kitchen.'
But the kitchen was reasonably modern except for the long, scrubbed table and pine dresser which even June had to admire.
'How I shall enjoy cooking in here!' said May. 'All sorts of wonderful things in great earthenware casseroles.'
'They'll feel embarrassed in that William Morris dining room.'
May, pushing open a door, said, 'They won't be eaten in that William Morris dining room. This is the room we shall virtually live in.'
It was long, with a large open fireplace and heavy white-washed beams. Three windows, one of them a French window, looked out on to a lawn beyond which was a grove of small, bushy trees. At the far end of the room there was an unusually large bow window with a window seat. May, moving quickly to it, said, 'Look! That must be the Hall.'
There was an uninterrupted view of it, across a neglected park dotted with ancient oaks, many of them obviously near the end of their lives.
'Palladian,' said May.
'Those pillars must make the inside dark.'
'George says it's going to rack and ruin – the whole estate is. And nothing can be done until the old man dies and the girl inherits, by which time it'll be too late for anything to be done.'
'Jolly prospect for the girl. And what a life for her, shut up in that tomb with an old man.'
'George gathered from the family solicitors that she's devoted to him. And I should think she's trying to prop up her inheritance. Well, perhaps we can make things a bit more cheerful for her.' May sat down on the window seat. 'June ...'
There was a sudden note of appeal in May's voice which her sister instantly recognised. She sat down beside May and said, 'Yes, darling?'
'You do like this room, surely? It's light and cheerful even on this gloomy day.'
'Well, it's certainly the better for not being cluttered up with old-fashioned furniture.'
'I can do something marvellous in here, once I get a line on it. June, darling, please stop being against the house.'
'I don't give a damn about the house, one way or another. What I'm against is your leaving London. I simply can't imagine life without you there.'
'We'll be just one hour from Liverpool Street and twenty minutes' drive from the station.'
'You're forgetting how long it'll take me to reach Liverpool Street. Anyway, I can't keep dashing down here. And I can't telephone whenever I feel like it.'
'You can telephone ten times a day if you like, and reverse the charges.'
'Of course I can't. And why, why, why do you want to leave London? Neither you nor George are country-lovers.'
May, after heaving a heavy sigh, said, 'All right. You'd better have the truth. I simply can't stand having my nose rubbed in George's goings-on any longer. Oh, I know they don't matter. I really do believe they're perfectly innocent.'
'Of course they are,' said June, who believed no such thing.
'But I can't go on ... well, watching them. At best, the change of commuting down here may keep his mind off women for a bit. At worst, I shan't see what he's up to. I will not let myself be a nagging wife.'
'You know he really adores you,' said June, thankful she could mean it as well as say it.
May sighed again. 'I suppose I do – though sometimes ... You'd think he could at least be a little more discreet when he knows how it upsets me to see him paying attention to other women. Oh, well, there it is. I'm sorry I've told you, really. I made a vow years ago that I wouldn't talk about it any more, even to you.'
'It's ages since you did. I took it that things were better.' In actual fact, she had merely taken it that May thought they were. 'Anyway, surely it doesn't matter, talking to me?'
'It's disloyal. You wouldn't talk to me if you had the same trouble with Robert – than which few things are less likely.'
'Oh, I don't know,' said June, who was quite sure she did know. Then she mentally touched wood. Perhaps it was unwise to feel a hundred per cent sure of any husband. 'Let's look at the rest of the house. And I'll try to be on your side about it.'
They went up the white-painted staircase and found six good bedrooms, some of them with fitted wash-basins, some smaller rooms and a pleasant if old-fashioned bathroom. May, counting rooms, said, 'I shall have masses of spare rooms, even when Corinna's down here and Dickon's home for his holidays. You can all come to stay. And the attics may be usable.'
She ran up the narrow stairs and called back, 'Excellent attics. Come on up. You get a good view from here. There's alittle garden hidden in those bushy trees at the back – with a sundial.'
June went up and dutifully admired the hidden garden.
'I wonder how you get to it,' said May. 'I can't see a path.'
'Probably the trees have grown together over the path.'
'What are those trees?'
'Difficult to tell when they've no leaves on.'
'I must read up about country things,' said May. 'But at least I can spot trees like oaks and elms even when they're bare. Oh, there's a house – over there, on the edge of the park. You can just see the side of it. That'll be the staff cottage.'
'Looks more like a barn. They don't paint cottages black.'
'They do sometimes – anyway, they tar them or something. It must be a cottage, it's got chimneys. We'll go and find it.'
Down in the hall May remembered they hadn't seen the room she had thought looked like an orangery. 'The one with tall windows.'
They found it at the end of a passage. It was very large and high, with a modern fireplace, many bookshelves, and a parquet floor. There were four of the tall windows that faced the front garden. In the back wall, a door stood open on to a tiled bathroom.
May said, 'Oh, this must be the room that was built as a bed-sitting-room for the crippled sister. George had tea here, not long before both sisters died – within a few weeks of each other. George said they were very gay and still quite pretty, though they were well over eighty.'
'I wonder what we shall be like if we live to be eighty.'
'You'll be a shade too plump and I shall be match-stick thin – except that I shall start overeating when I'm seventy. I can't bear brittle-looking old age. Of course you'll wear better than I shall. Beauty always wears better than mere prettiness.'
'Beauty? Me?' said June, genuinely astonished.
'You've always been ... sort of on the edge of beauty. George was saying that, or something very like it, that last time you and Robert came to dinner. And to be brutally frank, he also said that you don't make the best of yourself. Well, God knows I've told you that, often enough. You need the hint of red in your hair bringing out – I'd look a real faded blonde if I didn't have a brightening rinse. And you should dress more revealingly. You bundle yourself up so. Incidentally, that coat's had it. Why aren't you wearing the one I treated you to?'
'I didn't want to get it wet.'
'Oh, tut! ... Well, we don't really need this room but I may get a line on it. And the extra bathroom will be a boon. Now we'll find the staff cottage. Imagine still calling it that! Oh, and I must write a message for Sarah Strange.'
There was a pad and pencil on the mantel in the hall.
'Nice, a fireplace in the hall,' said May. 'We must have a fire in it when you all come down at Christmas.' She wrote on the pad, 'I love the house. My husband and I will come down on Saturday afternoon and then we can discuss everything. Looking forward to meeting you, May Clare.'
'That'll put the rent up,' said June.
'It's fixed already – and very reasonable.'
They went out, replaced the key on its nail, skirted the conservatory, which was completely empty (May again praised its potentialities) and made their way to the back of the house. Here they eventually found a tunnel-like path through the overgrown bushy trees which seemed likely to lead to the cottage they had seen. But soon other paths branched off and it was difficult to keep a sense of direction. June, after a minute or so, said, 'Do you know, I believe these trees are lilacs?'
'What, all of them? There couldn't be so much lilac.'
'Well, they all look the same and they're very like the old lilac tree in our back garden. Yes, I'm sure they're lilacs.'
'If so, Mother will go mad with delight. You know what a thing she has about lilac. She must come down when it's in bloom.'
'If she's back. I gather she's having a whale of a time.'
Their much-loved, long-widowed mother, who lived a colourful life on a large annuity, was completing a trip round the world by a prolonged stay with friends in America.
May said, 'She's supposed to be home by April. I wonder if we're walking in a circle. It's like being in a maze.'
'Nice idea, a lilac maze.'
'And we haven't struck the little garden. Oh, thank goodness, there's daylight ahead.'
They came out on to an overgrown lawn and at once saw the staff cottage. Black it was, tarred weather-boarding, but it was anything but gloomy. All its window-frames, the delicate barge-boarding of its two small gables, and its elegant iron-work porch were newly painted white. The whole effect was skittish.
'It's like something in a nursery rhyme,' said June.
'I wonder if it's a Regency cottage orné. No, those little pointed windows look Victorian Gothic.'
'So does the glass. How wonderful that it's still intact.'
The narrow white glazing bars divided the casement windows into a pattern of small octagons, and in each gable there was a circular window suggesting a sunflower.
May, getting the key from under the mat, said, 'I suppose the rooms will be tiny.'
Excerpted from A Tale of Two Families by Dodie Smith. Copyright © 1970 Dodie Smith. Excerpted by permission of Hesperus Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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