The Song of Hartgrove Hall: A Novel

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9780147517593: The Song of Hartgrove Hall: A Novel

From the New York Times bestselling author of The House at Tyneford, a captivating 1940s English country novel of a love triangle, family obligations, and rediscovering joy in the face of grief, perfect for fans of Kate Morton and Downton Abbey.

It's a terrible thing to covet your brother’s girl
 
New Year’s Eve, Dorset, England, 1946. Candles flicker, a gramophone scratches out a tune as guests dance and sip champagne— for one night Hartgrove Hall relives better days. Harry Fox-Talbot and his brothers have returned from World War II determined to save their once grand home from ruin. But the arrival of beautiful Jewish wartime singer Edie Rose tangles the threads of love and duty, and leads to a devastating betrayal.
 
Fifty years later, now a celebrated composer, Fox reels from the death of his adored wife, Edie. Until his connection with his four-year old grandson - a music prodigy – propels him back into life, and ultimately to confront his past. An enthralling novel about love and treachery, joy after grief, and a man forced to ask: is it ever too late to seek forgiveness?

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About the Author:

A screenwriter and novelist, Natasha Solomons lives in Dorset, England, with her husband and young son. She is the New York Times bestselling author of The House at Tyneford, The Gallery of Vanished Husbands, and The Song of Hartgrove Hall.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

March 2000
 
Edie sang at her own funeral.  It couldn’t  have been any other way. Most people first knew her by her voice. New acquaintances took a few weeks or months to reconcile that voice, that thrill of sound, with the slight, grey-eyed woman holding the large handbag. She was a garden thrush with the throat  of a nightingale. It was one of her nicknames – ‘The Little Nightingale’ – and the one I felt suited her best. The nightingale isn’t quite who we think she is. Contrary to what most people believe, the nightingale isn’t a British bird who winters  in  Africa.  She’s an  African  bird  who  summers  in England, and the sought-after  music of an English summer evening is really music from the African bush, as native to Guinea-Bissau as to the moss-sprung and anemone-speckled
copses of Berkshire and Dorset.

Edie once told me that the English countryside never really made sense to her. Her tiny Russian grandmother had looked after her while her parents manned their stall in Brick Lane, and she used to tell Edie stories. In winter they’d huddle under blankets beside the electric fire in their grotty flat, passing a cigarette back and forth,  Edie listening, her Bubbe talking. Bubbe’s stories were all of Russia and the white cold, a cold so deep it turned your bones to ice, and if the wind blew hard, you’d shatter into a billion pieces, fluttering to the ground as yet more snow.
In summer Edie and Bubbe would take apples out to the scrap of green that passed for a park and sit on a tarpaulin square (for a woman  raised in Siberia, Edie’s grandmother was remarkably  anxious  about  the ill effects of dew damp grass). On sun-filled afternoons, when grubby daisies unfurled in the warmth, young men unbuttoned their shirts to the navel and girls furtively unpeeled their stockings, Bubbe would tell stories full of snow. Edie would lie back and close her eyes against the jewel-gleam of the hot sun and envision snow racing across the grass in waves, turning everything white, smothering the sunbathers who had only a moment to shiver and scream before they shattered into ice.

It was rare for Edie to confide anything about  her child- hood. She kept it close, self-conscious and uneasy under the barrage of my interest. ‘I’m not like you. It wasn’t like this,’ she’d say, gesturing to the house with its lobes of wisteria or at the trembling willows by the lake. I’d feel embarrassed  and overcome with a very British need to apologise for the quiet privilege of  my own  childhood,  which,  according  to  Edie, must have diminished any loss or sadness that dared intrude in such a place.

For all their charm, the gardens at Hartgrove  never quite touched  Edie. She admired  the tumbles of  violets, and the slender spring irises the colour of school ink, but she never troubled to learn the names of the flowers. I always had the gardener  fill the pots  on the terrace  where we breakfasted with golden marigolds, so she insisted on calling them the marmalade flowers. It confused Clara sufficiently that, when she was about five, I caught her trying to spread the marma- lade flowers on her toast.

But when it snowed , Edie longed to be outdoors.  She was more excited than the children. At the first flake, she’d put on three coats at once, bandage her head in coloured scarves like a babushka and rush out, staring at the sky and willing a bliz- zard. Long after the girls were tired and damp from sledging in the fields, Edie lingered. Clara and Lucy would flop before the hearth in my study beside the steaming spaniels, and pres- ent to the fire rows of cold pink toes. Under the pretext of putting on a record for the girls ( The Nutcracker or a swirling, cinnamon-sprinkled  Viennese waltz  – our children’s taste in music was as sugar-sweet as the candy they lusted after), from the window I’d watch Edie as she’d start towards  the house and then pause every few steps, turning back to gaze at the white hills and the huddle of dark woods, like a lover reluctant to say a last goodbye.

So many people think they knew her. The Little Nightingale. England’s perfect rose. But Edie didn’t dream of roses in summertime, she dreamed of walking through snow, the first footsteps on an icy morning.
 
 
November 1946
 
Hartgrove Hall is ours again. It’s a strange sensation, this supposed homecoming – the prodigal sons returning all at once to Dorset on a bloody cold November morning. We are silent on the drive from the station to the house. Chivers steers the cantankerous  Austin at a steady twenty miles per hour, the General parked beside him on the front seat abso- lutely upright as though off to inspect the troops, while Jack, George and I are jammed into the back, trying not to meet one another’s eyes as we stare resolutely out of the windows.

I’m nervous about seeing her again. Hartgrove Hall is our long-lost love, the pen pal we’ve been mooning over in our thoughts for the last seven years, but each of us is submerged in lonely and silent anxiety at the prospect of our reunion. We know the house has had a tricky war – a parade of British regiments followed by the Americans, all of them tenants with mightier preoccupations than pruning the roses or sweeping the drawing room chimney or halting the onslaught of death- watch  beetle  that  has  been  gobbling  through  the  rafters forever.

As the car creeps higher and into the shadow of the hill, hoarfrost is draped across the branches like banners and where the trees meet across the narrow  lane, we plunge through  a tunnel of silver and white. The car turns into the long drive- way and there she is, Hartgrove Hall, bathed in early morning haze. To my relief she’s still the beauty I remember. I can’t see her flaws through the kindly mist, only the buttery warmth of the stone front, the thick limestone slabs on the roof drizzled with yellowing lichen. I climb out of the car and absorb the multitude of high mullioned windows and the elegant slope of the porch, and out of childish habit suddenly recalled, I count the skulk of stone foxes from the family crest that are carved on the flushwork. Ivy half conceals the smallest fox, so that he pokes his snout out from amongst the leaves as if he’s shy. I’m frightfully glad to see him. I thought I’d recalled every detail of the house. I’d paced its walks and corridors  each night before falling asleep and yet, already, here is something I’d quite forgotten.

The yellow sandstone façade is the same but the wisteria has been hacked away and without  it the front looks naked. All of the windows are unlit and the house looks cold, unready for guests. We’re not guests, I remind myself. We are the family returned. Yet it’s an odd sort of homecoming: instead of Chivers or one of the maids lingering in the porch to welcome us, a major from the Guards waits on the front steps, stamp- ing his feet to keep warm. On seeing us, he stops abruptly and salutes the General. The major thanks him for his honourable sacrifice and generosity even though we all know it’s bunkum and the house was requisitioned by law. Although, I suppose, knowing the General, he would have surrendered the house in any case out of a sense of duty. The General takes great pleas- ure in doing his duty. The more unpleasant the sacrifice, the more he enjoys it.

The major clearly wants to be off but Father keeps him talking outside for a good fifteen minutes while it starts to sleet. We all stand there rigid with cold and boredom. I’m amazed that  Jack  doesn’t  declare, ‘Bugger this, I’m off  to inspect the damage done to the old girl,’ and disappear, but then he and George have been demobbed for only a month or so. Beneath the civvy clothes they still possess a soldier’s habits and to walk away from a senior officer wouldn’t just be poor manners but a disciplinary offence.

After an age, the General allows the unfortunate  major to depart  and  marches  indoors.  Jack, George and  I hesitate, unwilling to follow. I want our reunion to be private and, as I glance at my brothers, it is clear that they feel the same. Jack lingers for a moment, then turns back down the steps, making for the river, while George heads in the opposite direction, crossing the lawns towards the lake. I wait for a minute, gulp- ing cold, fresh air, feeling the bite and tang of it on my teeth, and then slip into the house. The great hall is almost as frigid as it is outside. In the vast and soot-stained inglenook there is no fire. I am almost certain that there used to be a constant fire.  The  requisite  carved  foxes gaze out  from  the  stone- carved struts, chilly and forlorn. I suppose there is no one to light a fire now and I don’t suppose there will be again. I notice that  the mantelpiece is missing. I can’t think how it was taken or why.

The walls are bereft of paintings. The good ones haven’t hung here for years. They were flogged, one Gainsborough and  Stubbs at  a  time,  but  my ancestors  were sentimental chaps. Until the army requisitioned the house, copies of the originals used to hang around the hall – gloomy reminders of what was lost to Christie’s to pay inheritance tax, veterinarian bills, servants’ wages and to replace rotting windows. Some of the copies were rather good, others less so – peculiar, carni- val-mirror distortions of the originals. For years, Jack, George and I used to play ‘spot the imposter’ and attempt  to guess which of the bewigged and unsmiling portraits  were copies. Then the General told us that none of them was real and the game was rendered pointless.

The last painting to go was a dear Constable landscape of the woodland beneath Hartgrove barrow. The painter stands at the top of the ridge, gazing down at a brown wood dabbed with autumn light. Somewhere in the painting a nightingale sings – the last of the year. The copy of the Constable  is quite decent. I’ve always liked it, even though the colours are second rate and the lines muddy – but I can still hear the nightingale and that’s what matters. George sent it to me, along with his letter explaining that the house was to be requisitioned.  I’d been alone at school when the news had come, and it had left me disconsolate. Only George would have thought to send the painting with the horrid news – a kind memento of home to sustain me. Inevitably the painted view began to supplant  the one in my imagination  until I began to see the barrow and woods third hand – Constable’s vision re-daubed by a copyist.

I return to the car, retrieve the picture from the boot and rehang it on a nail in the hall. It looks lost and small.

I’m chilled and feel queasy from the pervasive stench of damp. Disheartened, I retreat down the steps and out across the  tangle  of  gardens  before  striking  uphill  towards  the ridge of Hartgrove barrow. I set off at a lick until, breathless from  exertion,  I pause  at  the  first  of  the  grass  terraces rippling the hillside to look down at the house. It’s different for me than for the others. I was eleven when she was taken in ’39 and I don’t remember how she’s supposed to be, not with  the  absolute  clarity  of  Jack  or  George.  From  my vantage point I can see the burned-out south wing. An acci- dent with an ember smouldering in an unswept chimney, according  to  the letter  sent by the War  Office, although Jack heard rumours it was a game gone awry in the Officers’ Mess. They’d been bottling farts into brandy bottles – such an ignominious end for four hundred years of history: sent up in smoke by a lit fart.

I’m not surprised no one could face confessing the truth to the General. I spent much of the war evading him myself. Not that it took much effort – the General’s war was spent preen- ing in Whitehall, he was delighted to partake in another helping  of  battle  even at  a  distance. Between school and holidays dawdled away at the houses of pals, I managed not to endure more than the occasional uneasy luncheon with him at the club.

From up here I can see the exposed timbers, looking like broken ribs, and the house appears unsteady and uneven, her former symmetry quite spoiled. An invalid with her shattered limb still attached. The lawns are sloshed into mud. Half the limes on the avenue are missing so that the driveway resembles a mouth with most of the teeth knocked out. The woodland under the ridge is balding in patches, where scores of the trees have been felled so that only the stumps remain, stubbling the hillside.

I sit down on an anthill and cry, relieved no one can see me. I wonder how the bloody hell we’re going to put the old girl back together. There are no paintings left to flog. No forgot- ten Turner lurking in the attic. Canning, the aged and recalcitrant  estate  manager,  is muttering  about  wanting  to retire. But then I swat away my doubts and revel in the pleas- ure of home. I take a breath of cold, larch-spiced air. Happiness rises up through me, fierce as brandy fumes.
  
In the dreary lull after Christmas, Jack informs us with great delight that he has persuaded the General to host a New Year’s Eve party. The General doesn’t like parties. They distract from the important  things in life: namely shooting pheasant  and fishing. Oddly, however, he enjoys a good war, even though it disrupts the same things. George is perfectly thrilled – he can’t quite believe Jack’s managed it. I’m not surprised. The General will agree to almost anything so long as it’s Jack who asks.

George and I set about readying the house. No mean feat as each day brings the discovery of yet more damage. The panel- ling in the great hall has been stripped away in places – whether for a lark or for kindling, we’ll never know. Not only is the mantelpiece missing on the grand inglenook, but part of the chimneystack has been knocked  off  so that  when it rains, sleets or worse, water pours down the chimney and puddles on the hearth. Someone left the front door open a few nights ago, and when I stumbled  up to bed I saw two  blackbirds taking a bath. They looked quite self-possessed as they dabbled, eyeing me with great condescension as I swayed past with a glass of whisky. I thought  I’d dreamed it, but when I came down in the morning, not a little hung-over, I found a spotted trail of white bird shit across the hall. The General appears to have neither the cash nor the inclination to make repairs. Planning for a party is a much pleasanter task than considering the larger future of the house.

On the morning of New Year’s Eve, George and I wander dismally from room to room, wondering how on God’s earth the place is going to be fit for a hundred of the county’s finest by the evening. At least we don’t have expectations to live up to.  Even  in  the  years  before  the  war,  Hartgrove   wasn’t renowned for the calibre of its hospitality: there was always decent grog, but even then we couldn’t afford the st...

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Book Description Plume Books, United States, 2015. Paperback. Book Condition: New. Language: English . Brand New Book. From the New York Times bestselling author of The House at Tyneford, a captivating 1940s English country novel of a love triangle, family obligations, and rediscovering joy in the face of grief, perfect for fans ofKate Morton and Downton Abbey. It s a terrible thing to covet your brother s girl New Year s Eve, Dorset, England, 1946. Candles flicker, a gramophone scratches out a tune as guests dance and sip champagne for one night Hartgrove Hall relives better days. Harry Fox-Talbot and his brothers have returned from World War II determined to save their once grand home from ruin. But the arrival of beautiful Jewish wartime singer Edie Rose tangles the threads of love and duty, and leads to a devastating betrayal. Fifty years later, now a celebrated composer, Fox reels from the death of his adored wife, Edie. Until his connection with his four-year old grandson - a music prodigy propels him back into life, and ultimately to confront his past. An enthralling novel about love and treachery, joy after grief, and a man forced to ask: is it ever too late to seek forgiveness?. Bookseller Inventory # AAS9780147517593

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