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

Milton Place - Elisabeth de WaalMilton 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.

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