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Satchfield Hall opens with a classic funeral scene: mourners gathered around an old man’s grave. But we are not going to read about this man’s life alone, the main character in this story, the main victim if you will, is not the body in the coffin but his daughter Celia Bryant-Smythe, who “was not dressed in sombre clothing, nor was she weeping. For her, it was not a day to mourn; she had done that years earlier. Wept at the loss of the man she once believed had cared for her. He had, but not in the way she had hoped. Like everything in Henry Bryant-Smythe’s life, he had viewed her as an asset, an investment, and when she had deprived him of what he believed was his insurance with a healthy dividend, he had made her pay, the price had been high; very high.”
So begins the sad tale of a young mother’s search for the son taken from her at birth on her father’s orders. This is 1942 and the child is illegitimate, reason enough to send the baby for adoption, but Celia’s father’s action is far more than a paternal concern for appearances; his daughter’s disgrace enables him to cover up an embarrassing situation with a servant also in the family way. Although this detail is never quite clarified for we rarely see the evil-minded Bryant-Smythe in action and only learn second-hand what he has done and continues to do from other characters and the narrator. While most of the story is told in ‘look back in anger’ mode from Celia’s point of view there is an omniscient narrator privy to each character’s thoughts and motives to explain exactly what is happening and why.
I shan’t reveal how Celia regains her son – although we know this from the start for he appears in the prologue – because this family saga, very much a fictional drama, relates Celia’s personal journey from being an outcast teenage mother, to a loving wife and mother again. It also tells how Celia’s mother, Muriel, goes from tearful hand-wringing despair at ‘the situation’ to finding the courage to act on her own; and how her mother-in-law, Mrs Gillespie, a typical upper middle-class housewife of the epoch accustomed to turning a blind eye to what her men folk are up to, also develops the strength to bring about vital changes.
The other women featuring in the story are the nasty house-keeper Mrs Jenkins, who makes Mrs Danvers look benign; the middle-aged, thoroughly maternal woman hired to act as midwife, Gladys Thrift, who stays on to become Celia’s very caring carer, and a timorous servant with the wonderful name of Lizzie Rainbow, who later becomes Celia’s friend.
Satchfield Hall is a combination of a family saga and a ‘great house, upstairs-downstairs’ story, which may appeal particularly to older women readers who remember their own parents’ ‘old-fashioned’ attitudes. A novel to read by a warm fire during a chilly weekend.
© Jane G Harlond