Sunday, 19 February 2012

The New House by Lettice Cooper

It is 1936, and Rhoda Powell and her widowed mother Natalie are moving from their large family home, Stone House, to a smaller house in the same northern English town.  Rhoda's younger sister Delia comes to help on moving day; she is about to be married and will therefore be leaving her job in a London laboratory. She suggests that Rhoda should apply for it and leave home.  Rhoda initially dismisses the idea of leaving her mother, but gradually she realises how much she wants a more independent life.  Will she take this opportunity, or will her sense of loyalty and duty prevail?

The novel is set over a single day and follows the Powells as they pack, dispense cups of tea to the removal men, and unpack in their new house.  As well as Rhoda and her mother and sister, we also meet her brother Maurice, struggling to run the family engineering business; his wife Evelyn, hungry for social success and more money; and Aunt Ellen, Natalie's sister who never married and cared for their mother all her life.  Natalie is outraged by the circumstances of the move; petted and spoiled all her life, she cannot understand why Rhoda and Maurice are allowing this to happen.  Rhoda's sudden expression of her wish to leave home knocks her even further off balance: she takes Rhoda entirely for granted as her helpmeet and companion, fretting when Rhoda fails to put her needs first, jealous of Rhoda's friends and other interests.  There is a loving mother hidden inside Natalie, but she is mainly suppressed by the demanding child that is the personality she shows the world.  As well as the drama unfolding between Rhoda and her mother, two sub-plots run through the novel: the difficulties emerging in Maurice's marriage, and the stoical existence of Aunt Ellen, who suppresses thoughts of her unmet needs and counts her blessings.

This family drama is set firmly in its social context.  Maurice is troubled by his increasing sympathy with the principles of socialism, a sympathy entirely unshared by his wife.  A colleague has made the radical decision to pay himself what he pays his employees, but Maurice knows that Evelyn would never accede to such a redistribution of wealth.  Stone House will be sold to a property developer and its large garden accommodate better housing for the working class.  Natalie is appalled to realise that she will be able to see her neighbours' laundry from her new house; the new house, by the way, is an enlarged lodge that once belonged to the local manor house, and sounds delightful.  Both Natalie and Evelyn are disturbed by the emergence of the poor from their slums where they were decently hidden from sight, and by the new power of tradesmen, and no amount of chaffing by the rest of the family will shift them from this position.  Lettice Cooper also makes a definitive link between the oppression of the poor under capitalism, and the oppression of daughters like Rhoda within the family; Rhoda is well aware of her position, poised between the accepting dutifulness of Aunt Ellen and the greater independence of Delia.

If this all sounds rather worthy, it isn't; it's made entirely pleasurable by Lettice Cooper's lovely writing.  Maureen Duffy's introduction to the Virago edition makes the link with Jane Austen, which is a good comparison, but as well as light irony, fairness and lucidity runs through her prose.  There are also passages that are just straightforwardly beautiful, like this one, in which Rhoda contemplates the nature of change:

It was the newness of the seaside when you went out after tea the first evening; the newness of your bedroom in a friend's house, when you were shown into it, your bag there, just brought up, and the jug of hot water covered with a towel; the newness of your first foreign journey, walking from the boat to the train through strange voices, thinking, I'm in France!  It was precious because it went too soon.  Other things succeeded, but never that particular enchantment.  This fragile bloom was on the whole house, the rooms they had not slept nor eaten in, the garden where they had picked nothing, and the tangle of neglected flowers not of their growing.

Cooper is also good at dropping in little epigrams, little comments about life, which are so clear and obvious you wonder why they have never occurred to you before.  When Rhoda, for example,  remembers a moment of childhood epiphany, she suddenly realises that "it was these moments that made you disinherited; you were homesick in life because there were so few of them".  The Manchester Guardian called this novel Chekhov in Yorkshire on its first publication, which gives you an indication of its beauty and insight.

Lettice Cooper's writing career lasted over sixty years, and she lived to see her work be reissued by Virago and reach a new audience.  The New House is still available from Persephone, and there are secondhand copies around of her other nineteen novels, which range in theme from 1930s Yorkshire to stories set in Florence and a novel about the 1972 miners' strike in Britain.

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