The House At Riverton - Kate Morton
What came first; Kate Morton’s The House At Riverton or ITV’s Downton Abbey? That is the question I found myself asking after reading the opening section of the novel. Everything seemed so familiar, the characters and setting instantly recognisable. It seemed to me I had been watching the television series of the book; or at least something very similar.
To be clear, The House At Riverton was published in the U.K. in 2007, and though I do not know the date that Julian Fellowes starting working on the script for the hugely popular and successful ITV hit TV series Downton Abbey, any similarity must be dismissed as coincidence. That said, the similarities are remarkable: What separates Katie, Riverton’s put-upon scullery maid, from Downton’s Daisy for instance? And surely the butlers Mr Hamilton and Mr Carson, are cut from the very same cloth? Both Riverton and Downton have a lady Violet and women’s suffrage and secretarial courses are also shared interests between these great houses.
I note these merely as observation, not complaint. It’s not an unfair or unfavourable comparison. In fact I’ve often caught myself thinking ‘I would like to read this’ while watching the ITV series. I felt confident therefore that Morton’s The House At Riverton would be right up my street and prove a pleasurable read. This was not quite how things turned out.
The House At Riverton tells the story of Grace Bradley who began work as a housemaid at Riverton in 1914. The story is told mostly in the first person by the elderly Grace, who in 1999 is in her late nineties. A director who is making a film about the events that occurred at the house contacts Grace for some personal insight. This stirs Grace’s memories, some welcome others not so. The novel is a series of flashbacks to her time at the house and all of the events; happy and sad, that occurred therein. Grace recalls her relationships with the other staff and the family for which she worked, the Hartfords. In particular the sisters Hannah and Emmeline, and the tragic young poet, Robbie.
The House At Riverton was one of those rare books that I purchased full price from an actual street-side book shop. Instead of the usual, book swap, lend, 99p Amazon bargain scenario, it was with the parting of cold hard cash that brought Morton’s work into my hands. And it happened thus because of another work of Morton’s I had read and enjoyed. The Forgotten Garden had been an immensely enjoyable summer read which occupied several glorious afternoons where I was fully zoned into the text and unable to put it down (I love it when that happens.) I therefore did not hesitate when I saw The House At Riverton in an enticing window display and felt certain that Morton was bound to bring me some more happy days. Well I suppose it’s a case of practise makes perfect as The House At Riverton was in fact Mortons’ first novel and The Forgotten Garden her second. This was an unusual occurrence I have to say. Never before have I had this experience of an author, where I like one of their works immensely and feel rather the opposite about another.
One of my complaints with The House At Riverton is that I simply don’t feel it’s very well written. It’s not entirely awful and there are a few enjoyable moments but there are also some moments in the novel that irked me immeasurably. For example, we are to believe that Grace as young housemaid is naïve, innocent and unworldly. However, one minute she is blushing at the word ‘initmacies’ and the next she is making perceptive and wizened judgements on life, love and the world entire. Morton sometimes confuses the young Grace with the elderly Grace, so that the narrative becomes confused and frankly, unconvincing. And it’s this feeling that pervades throughout the novel...this sense that it’s inauthentic, unoriginal somehow.
This is undoubtedly one of the perils of the historical novel. I’ve mentioned the dangers of such an enterprise in a previous hub (Sashenka – Montefiore) and I’m afraid Morton hasn’t been successful in avoiding all of the associated pitfalls. The House at Riverton reads something like a school project. Morton has done her research and is intent on showing teacher just how much she knows by listing everything significant about the time period. As such, much of the past scenes that Grace recalls feel entirely contrived. If you lived in a certain time period then much of what may seem strange to us in 2012 would not so to you if you lived during that time. So surely you would not comment on what was commonplace for you. I can’t imagine writing about my youth when I’m in my nineties (God willing I make it that far) and feeling the need to mention how phone chargers were left on bedside tables and one cup pyramid tea bags were commonly used.
But my biggest complaint of the entire novel is Morton’s incorrect use of the English language. At one point in the novel Grace describes Hannah as ‘fossicking’ for something in her bag. Here Morton’s Australian heritage betrays her. I find it highly unlikely that Grace would describe any kind of rummaging as such. In fact I doubt whether any English woman in the early 1900s or the 21st century would ever use the word fossick, peculiar as it is to Australia and New Zealand! Why not have the Edwardians throwing a few shrimps on the Barbie Morton? ...you flaming gala! When writing about such a specific time period and class of people such an error sticks out like a sore thumb.
I believe myself to be a very forgiving reader, and viewer for that matter. I am happy to suspend disbelief and ignore a few errors in period detail. It doesn’t bother me that hobbits don’t exist; I can still enjoy the adventures of middle earth. I doubt that there any many bed-bound quadriplegic criminalists who solve crime after crime more or less single-handedly, but that doesn’t mar my interest in the career of Lincoln Rhyme. And I doubt that any hospital has that many good-looking, over-emotional, speech-giving surgeons but that doesn’t prevent me from watching a weekly episode of Grey’s Anatomy. Maybe I am simply not that discerning a customer, although I prefer to think of it as not sweating the small stuff. I mean who are those saddos who write in to T.V. companies to complain about the incorrect curtain fabric...get a life! (I’m aware that the same could be said about those who spend their time on the internet writing about some of the books they have read...everyone’s a critic!) But if you are going to write a historical novel then I’m afraid you just have to try a bit harder.
There is a world-weariness about Morton’s writing. In her efforts to impart some age-old wisdom to her reader the text sounds clichéd and trite in places. I want to condemn Morton for this but I can’t entirey because there's part of me that quite likes it. As I’m reading, I am at once rolling my eyes at the cliché while also nodding in agreement with the over-used adage.
‘It is a cruel, ironical art, photography. The dragging of captured moments into the future; moments that should have been allowed to evaporate with the past; should exist only in memories, glimpsed through the fog of events that came after. Photographs force us to see people before their future weighed them down, before they knew their endings.’
See what I mean?
‘One upon a time, people kept their stories to themselves. It didn’t occur to them that folks would find them interesting. Now everybody’s writing a memoir, competing for the worst childhood, the most violent father.’
Actually the elderly Grace is very likeable, and Morton does do a good job of illuminating the delights and downfalls of ageing; what it’s like to look back at your life and be patronised and cajoled by those around you. Much of what Morton writes about reaching the end of life, and the tragedy and peace that accompanies this, is quite moving, even if we are reminded a little of the old lady at the start of Titanic as she begins to reminisce about her younger self. You see there it is again...it’s all a bit cheesy!
If you’re going to give Morton a try then I suggest you skip The House At Riverton and go straight to The Forgotten Garden instead. If however, it’s the Edwardian period you’re interested in then I would recommend The Children’s Book by A.S. Byatt. Now that, my friends, is a read!