A Wartime Romance

This post was edited and republished back into my blog’s original timeline from my lost posts archive.

The Novel in the Viola by Natasha Solomons

In the same way that we all rejoiced when the TV powers that be gave us Downton Abbey and resurrected Upstairs Downstairs, not to mention the Oscar-winning success of The King’s Speech, we should also be delighted that Natasha Solomons has given us a WWII equivalent in novel form.

The Novel in the Viola has much in common with all those mentioned above. It is cosy – there’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s not sentimental with it. This novel has a cast of well-drawn characters, most of which you’ll come to love within pages of meeting.  It also has a real sense of its place in time, starting in 1938, just before war breaks out, which gives a sense of urgency behind the narrative. The sense of place is also palpable – a big old country house in a large estate by the south coast; Tyneford is as much the star as any of the characters.

The story is deceptively simple.  Elise Landau arrives at Tyneford to become a parlourmaid in 1938 to the Rivers family. Mr Rivers is a widower, his son Kit is up at university. Elise, who comes from a well-to-do family in Vienna, is Jewish; giving up her genteel life in Austria and travelling to England to enter service is one of the only ways of getting out of the country after the Anschluss. At first it is hard for her to become a servant, especially when she has to act as ladies maid to two sisters guests at Kit’s 21st birthday party…

Diana sat down at the vanity table, gazed into the mirror and rolled her eyes.
‘Lordy! I am such a mess. Can you fix hair – what-was-your-name?’
‘Elise. And I can try if you like.’
I picked up a brush and a couple of pins and reached out for a stray blond curl. She slapped my hand away.
‘Stop it. You’ll only make it worse.’
I bit my lip with the effort of not answering back.
Juno sank down on the window seat. ‘This weather is awful. Why he’s having the party now, Christ only knows. He could have waited till June or July and some decent chance of sun. This place is absolutely horrid in winter.’
Diana fluffed her curls. ‘The countryside is a hobby, not a place where one actually lives.’
I chewed my tongue. Had i ever been like this? I hoped not, though Hilde would have spanked me if I’d tried. Diana looked at me in the mirror.
‘So Ellis, you are a German Jewess?’
‘Oh yes. Same thing,’ she snapped, impatient.
‘I am from Vienna.’
‘The Viennese are very fashionable.’ She turned to her sister. ‘I heard that Jecca Dunworthy was waited on by a Viennese Countess when she stayed with the Pitt-Smyth’s in Bath.’
I said nothing and picked blond strands from the hairbrush. Diana reapplied her lipstick.

I haven’t mentioned Kit properly yet. He makes friends with Elise, he helps with her English lessons, and of course you hope that they’ll end up together – they are obviously attracted to each other from the outset.  There are many obstacles in the way of a relationship between these star-crossed lovers, not least the war. Their romance is truly fairytale stuff, but ultimately more interesting is the relationship between Elise and Kit’s father. They strike up a friendship after he finds out that Elise’s father is the famous novelist Julian Landau – Mr Rivers has all his novels.

One of this novel’s great strengths is how it shows what happened in big households when war came, as one by one the younger servants leave to join up, and the family’s sons go off to be officers. The older butler and housekeeper try to keep standards up, but it becomes too much, and there is a certain amount of bringing together upstairs and downstairs which works in this household, and Mr Rivers mucks in on the farm, and with the fishermen happily, preferring to be busy.

I found this novel to be utterly charming, with lovely touches of humour alongside the bittersweet romance. Underlying it all was the fact that the war changes everything, and that it really was the end of an era. The characters were wonderful – Elise starts off as the slightly spoilt, wide-eyed innocent, and grows into an assured young woman page by page. Oh, and in case you’re wondering (and as it’s mentioned near the beginning, it’s not really spoiling), there is a novel in the viola – I won’t explain more!

I really hope this novel has been snapped up for a screen adaptation – it would be perfect in the Sunday drama slot. I really wish they hadn’t put a fluffy cover on the paperback though (above right), as it makes it seem like any old romance, and this book is much more than that.  (9/10)

Read another post about The Novel in the Viola, and an interview with the author over at Savidge Reads.

Source: Review copy

Natasha Solomons, The Novel in the Viola (Sceptre, 2011) paperback, 400 pages.

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