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Book Review: The Uninvited Guests

The Uninvited Guests

by Sadie Jones

Harper, 2012

“Whither the Edwardian novel?” is a particularly twee question jaded, alcoholic book critics might well have thought they’d never need to ask again, especially after so many of them did their priestly duty and slogged their way through the fetid marshland of Vita Sackville-West’s 1930 production The Edwardians with its endless wrist-wringing of every one of the sub-genre’s most tired cliches. Those critics of long ago had to force down page after page of “Down in the steward’s room the butler offered his arm gravely to the Duchess of Hull’s maid, and conducted her to her place at his right hand. Lord Roehampton’s valet did the same by Mrs. Wickenden the housekeeper. Mrs. Wickenden, of course, was not married, and her title was bestowed only by courtesy” …. until even the strongest critic was openly weeping over his typewriter. The staples of the sub-genre – the country house with its pretty, oblivious owners and their insufferable children, the army of servants scrupulously mirroring the social stratifications of their betters, the gruelling marathon of meal-and-furniture descriptions, the ironies of they-don’t-know-what’s-coming historical hint-dropping (a nearby locomotive is always, always, always involved somehow), the dinner conversation and elegant breakdowns, how gobsmacked everybody is by that automobile on the gravel driveway – create such an air of intellectual suffocation that critics wondered how readers could stomach it all just about as often as readers wondered how critics could savage it all.

The first wave of Edwardian novels was inspired by nostalgia for the actual Edwardian era, that magic time of furs, ten-course meals, and a funny little man called Kaiser (since the definition of the era typically stretches from the death of Queen Victoria to the first fateful battles of 1914). Critics thought the First World War saw that mawkish phenomenon off into the sunset permanently, but they reckoned without new technology. The second wave of Edwardian novels was inspired by, of all things, a TV series: the BBC’s 1970s corseted melodrama “Upstairs, Downstairs” kicked off a new wave of miladying and milording, and a whole new generation of people got to hear liveried kitchen help gripe while they spooned turtle soup into tureens.

A long enough quiescence followed so that critics might have been hoping for the best, but then the British TV series “Downton Abbey” broke upon the collective consciousness and got the whole ghastly quadrille going again, although in fairness, some of the earliest suspects – such as Richard Mason’s lush, wonderful 2011 novel History of a Pleasure Seeker – were no doubt in the works before “Downton” raised their real estate value. And whether or not the same is true for Sadie Jones’ new novel The Uninvited Guests should be secondary to the fact that the book is utterly delightful, as sharp and mordantly playful as Wednesday Adams around a visiting group of suburban relations.

The book centers on Sterne, a decaying but picturesque manor set in the English countryside. Sterne is the home of the Torrington family – imperious and alluring Charlotte, her sexy and haughty young son Clovis, her romantic-yet-caustic daughter Emerald, and the youngest girl, Imogen, known to all as Smudge. Charlotte’s husband Horace, the family’s beloved paterfamilias, has died leaving the family deeply in debt, and Charlotte’s new husband, a one-armed Irish barrister named Edward Swift (Clovis and Emerald witheringly refer to him as ‘the Step’), is so deeply in love with Charlotte that he’s vowed to save Sterne somehow, even if it means borrowing money from unsavory characters. The action of the novel opens with Swift heading off to London on this mission, leaving the occupants of Sterne to moon about preparing for Emerald’s 20th birthday party (where, due to straightened circumstances, mock-turtle soup will be served).

Emerald herself is ambivalent about the big day. Not only is she nervous about the possibility that debt will force the family to leave Sterne (“She turned to face the house, the windows of which glowed variously. ‘There’s no use looking at me like that,’ she said to it”), but she’s touchy about that perennial Edwardian subject: suitors. There’s John Buchanan, a prosperous neighboring landowner, who’s so regular and boring that when he offers her a little birthday present, she immediately launches into a legal disclaimer about what her acceptance of the gift does and doesn’t signify, which earns her a gentle rebuke:

‘Miss Torrington,’ his [John Buchanan's] voice was warm with appropriate kindliness, ‘we played as children! Before you were Miss Torrington to me you were Emerald, Emmy, Little Em … If I come here now, with a trinket, please don’t leap to conclusions that cast me in a more romantic light than I deserve.’

At which point we’re told: “Emerald was covered in shame. Her face, not used to blushes, was suffused with heat. Oh, her pride and conceit.” Oh, her pride and conceit isn’t just a perfect-scansion rhyme there; it’s also a characteristic tone of this novel, archly anachronistic as it mugs to the reader – which is to say, mugs to the camera, since this is an intensely cinematic book, with characters (especially Emerald) constantly talking to inanimate objects in a way that’s rare for contemporary fiction but perfect for BBC close-ups. When Smudge (a neglected and therefore deeply eccentric child) tries to sneak a horse up to her bedroom, every single detail is blocked out for the camera:

[Smudge] heard Charlotte’s quick tread, another door – even closer – then, as unmistakable as horse’s hooves, came the sound of the lavatory flushing. Hysteria rose madly in Smudge’s chest, she would laugh, she would fall over laughing, she would die. But Lady, as if she, too, recognised the sound of a pulled chain, lifted her tail and deposited a wet heap of grassy, steaming droppings on the back landing, right at the top of the stairs.

‘Oh, Lady,’ breathed Smudge, giggles forgotten, ‘that wasn’t very nice.’

All this production-ready precision isn’t necessarily a bad thing, of course (we’d all be lucky to see a good film adaptation of this book, though there isn’t a director alive who could manage its third act), and it serves only as garnish to Jones’ main fare, her astoundingly sure evocation of atmosphere (her descriptions of Sterne’s natural settings are uniformly excellent) and her almost clinical probing of the tensions between friends, family, and strangers.

The strangers arrive courtesy of a nearby train accident (you were warned), which spills a ragged horde of victims onto Sterne’s doorstep and startles all sub-plots out of the shrubbery like game hens. Jones orchestrates the resulting tensions with infectious aplomb, culminating in a bravura long scene involving a parlor game called “Hinds and Hounds” and all the unwanted revelations it provokes:

‘Enough! What do you know of her?’ cried Ernest, but the others, although not laughing as they had done at him, nevertheless felt the same compulsive delight at the moment. They were hounds now, and their cruelty was bred into them.

The Uninvited Guests will doubtless confuse some modern readers accustomed to being spoon-fed nutritious literary smoothies made of schmaltz, sentiment, and softballs. This is a darkly mocking book that plays its considerable intelligence close to its vest and manages to subvert at least as many Edwardian fixtures as it celebrates. Critics said that about Lord Roehampton & Co. a long time ago – but maybe some of them didn’t mean it.