The Faded Glory of the Old English Country House: Milton Place by Elisabeth de Waal

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‘Milton Place’ by Elisabeth de Waal

 ‘Milton Place’ is the story of an old English country house and that of its owner, Mr Barlow and the turn of events that present themselves, when he invites the daughter of an old friend into his heart and home.

As with all good stories, Milton Place is a tale that has a dual storyline. On the surface, there is an absorbing story that recounts the complex tangle of relations and relationships between a group of individuals who either live in or visit Milton Place. But peeling back the layers of the story, ‘Milton Place’ is an ode to the old English countryhouse, the old aristocratic way of living and thinking that perished in the face of two earth shattering World Wars. It is the story of the dissolution of a way of life and the attempts of the English landed gentry to hold on to the old life, for as long as possible and de Waal renders this picture, quite perfectly.

The story starts out with elderly Mr Barlow, owner of Milton Place, receiving a letter from the daughter of an old friend. We discover that the old friend was a sweetheart, who lived in Vienna and whom he was unable to marry due to family and societal expectations. Mr Barlow invites the daughter, Anita Seiler, a widow to his old, rundown countryhouse, Milton Place.

Barlow, a widower himself, lives alone with the help of an elderly couple who endeavour to take care of the house and those duties that are required in minimally keeping up such a large house. There are two grown-up, married daughters. Cecilia, who has married a doctor and lives a restricted and unhappy provincial life. They have a teenage son Tony, who benefits from a private education due to the largesse of his grandfather, much to the chagrin of his son-in-law. Emily, his other daughter has married well and lives a busy life involved with several local committees and charities.

The life that Mr Barlow leads is a lonely one, in a ghostly shell of a house that has known better days. His daughters are completely self-absorbed. Cecilia suffers from pangs of depression and is bullied by her bitter husband. The estranged relationship with her only son, doesn’t help matters.  Emily is constantly scheming to sell Milton Place and remove the burden of the upkeep of a country house languishing on dwindling resources.

Anita Seiler, with all her energy, efficiency and pleasant demeanour comes as a breath of fresh air to Mr Barlow’s dull and dreary life. Slowly but surely, Anita, who has come to England in search of work, carves out a place for herself at Milton Place. She is a companion to Mr Barlow, devotes time to long walks and conversation and even tries to revive certain rooms in the old house. Mr Barlow’s daughter’s see her as a threat to their lives and are unhappy with her continued presence at Milton Place. Then, an unexpected event occurs that threatens to upset the delicate balance of Milton Place and things must come to a head…

Though Elisabeth de Waal’s storytelling was quite compelling there were other aspects of the book that made it stand out in my mind- and that was the background story of the dwindling fortunes of the English countryhouse. Although the comparison might be a tad long-drawn, the books of Thirkell come to mind when examining Milton Place.

Thirkell’s plots are often quite loose, some might deem them as silly, but I enjoy reading the books to learn about a lost era, a long forgotten way of life. Social history and domestic detail are so important for our better understanding of historical and political events. Snippets of daily life add luscious detail to the intricate tapestry of human living. Each story from the past can provide rich details to render this picture, all the more clearer.

There are also particularly moving musings on life and old age, seen through the eyes of old Mr Barlow:

At my time of life every season, almost every day day, is a grace, and the spring is not an ache, but a glory. It is true, one loses most of one’s desires, but one also loses one’s impatience, and there is given to one the only moment of life that is real- the moment that always had seemed to escape- the present.

 

If you read Milton Place, I hope you will enjoy the story, but more so, I hope the facade of the crumbling old house, the gentle manners of an old English country squire, the long walks in the English countryside, descriptions of flora and fauna that grow in the gardens will inspire you, as they have done me, to read more and learn more about that particular time, that is no more.

I was provided a complimentary review copy of ‘Milton Place’ by Persephone Books, but all opinions are my own.

6 Tips to Overcome the Post-Christmas Blues

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We are now in that bleak stretch of the year – when the jollity of Christmas and the New Year are behind us and the promise of Spring and lighter, brighter days seems like a faraway dream.

I personally enjoy the winter but this year it’s a little different. Even in Kolkata, with its mild winters, our homes, built for the long Indian summers, have been rendered unseasonably chilly this year and everyone seems to be suffering from the sniffs and the snuffles.

 

Here are my 6 tips to alleviate the post- Christmas blues and help to soften the blow of the winter months.

Read books that are wintry, partly Christmassy or are written in a diary format

I do put away my Christmas reading in New Year. It just seems wrong to me to be reading about festive frolic in January. I must admit that books with ‘Winter’ in the title, snowy scenes or those that have occasional Christmas chapters are acceptable to me, however. At the moment I’m reading ‘A City of Bells’ by Elizabeth Goudge. Her writing is so mellow, beautifully descriptive and luckily enough, this book has a bookshop in it AND a Christmas chapter or two. Would you just look at that beautiful cover too! Other books on my January TBR are Elizabeth Fair’s ‘ A Winter Away’, recently reissued by Dean Street Press. I’m also reading a review copy of Peresephone’s latest offering – Stella Martin Currey’s ‘ One Woman’s Year’. To start a book in January, with January as a first chapter is perfectly satisfying, as I’m a diary writer myself. If all else fails, EM Delafield’s ‘Diary of a Provincial Lady’ is sure to provide comfort.

 

Bake season appropriate confections

Firing up the oven during the cold months and making something from scratch feels particularly gratifying. I find Christmas cakes a bit on the heavy side. For the winter months I love baking with raisins, fruits and nuts and find that the addition of cinnamon, orange peel, ginger and other aromatics makes cakes, perfect for snacking with a hot cup of tea or coffee. The best cakes in my opinion, combine equal amounts of sugar, butter and flour.

 

Indulge in all the Vlogmas videos you weren’t able to cram into December

‘Vlogmas’ or the art of vlogging every day in December till Christmas Day is a tradition we indulge in at the end of the year. Although I have never knitted a pair of socks, can’t run a sewing machine and haven’t picked up a pair of needles in a few years, I enjoy watching Vlogmas videos from the following makers : Sew Sweet Violet and Sandy By the Lakeside. There’s something particularly cozy about their videos as they open advent calendars, bake and sew, craft and knit and drink Nespressos. Their videos really put me in the mood for Christmas. Owing to the lack of time to devote to YouTube during December, I always have a backlog of Vlogmas videos in January and it feels just lovely to watch them then.

 

Take down the tree but keep the fairy lights and Christmas cards up

I receive many of my Christmas cards well into the New Year. I’ve even received them in April in past years. There’s nothing as lovely to crack open an envelope from a far away place and feel the pleasure of reading a handwritten note from a thoughtful friend. The greatest gift we can give each other in this fast day and age, is the gift of time and it certainly takes time to pick out a card, write a note and post it. This is why I like to leave the cards up in January. Twinkly fair lights also help to brighten the gloomy days and long evenings.

 

Walk in Nature for even 30 minutes and listen to something

I really am not very good at hitting the gym but I do like to walk in a park or if possible, run my errands on foot. I walk in a small park near my home every day.  It’s a monotonous stretch of path that winds in an ‘L’ shape around a lake and the sameness of the scenery is broken up by listening to various bookish podcasts and audiobooks. Walking in greenery instantly lifts my mood and I take the time while listening to notice small details around me. The patterns of the different leaves, birds flitting by, the undulating motion of branches swaying in the wind. Being mindful while listening to a discussion, a piece of music or a story is calming and grounding. I’m currently listening to Anthony Trollope’s ‘The Prime Minister’ on audiobook. Listening to long unedited, Victorian novels helps me put in those extra steps and keep my mind and body healthy.

 

Drink mulled apple juice and lace it with brandy for those cold cold nights

I’ve discovered mulled apple juice this year. Take cloudy apple juice and dilute it with water to suit your taste and toss in a cinnamon stick, handful of cloves, slit cardamom pods, slivers of ginger, orange slices and then gently bubble it on a stove top. Lo and behold, after ten minutes of steeping, you have a hot drink that will warm the cockles of your heart. Drink it in a mug and warm your hands while nursing the drink. Slosh in some brandy if you feel so inclined.

 

There are many things to look forward to in the new year. Setting up a new diary. Planning seasonal reads. Lighting candles. Baking. Wearing warm socks, creating a winter playlist and taking a hot water bottle with you to bed at night are some small ways in which you can bring greater comfort to your life.

 

Now that I’ve poured out my old-fashioned ways to you, tell me, what can we add to this list of wintertime comforts?