Wednesday, February 29, 2012

The mists of time

It was pure circumstance that I finished listening to The Shifting Fog (The House at Riverton in the U.S.) the very weekend I devoted to all nine hours of Season 2 of Downton Abbey on DVD. Kate Morton's doorstop of a novel is a whole lot less romantic than the television program, but they do share a time and setting that made for an enjoyable country weekend, so to speak.

The Shifting Fog is the memoir of Grace Bradley, born in 1900 and now in her late 90s. She's been approached by a screenwriter/director who is making a movie based on an incident that took place at Riverton Manor in 1924. Grace was a lady's maid in the house at the time and the request takes her back -- at great leisure and length -- to her time there. Grace arrived as a housemaid in 1914, sent by her mother (who used to work at Riverton). Lord and Lady Ashbury live there quietly, but when the three children of their youngest son Frederick arrive, Grace feels an immediate connection to them, eldest daughter Hannah -- who is the same age as Grace -- in particular. When Hannah marries shortly after the end of the Great War, she invites Grace to be her lady's maid.

At the beginning of the war, brother David brings a schoolmate to Riverton, Robbie Hunter. The young men have enlisted, and later David dies at the front. Several years pass and Robbie appears at Hannah's London home, ostensibly offering to return a book. He has become a troubled, but well-known war poet, and he and Hannah -- quickly bored by her shell of a marriage -- begin an affair. As a cover for their affair, Robbie squires younger sister Emmeline around the London Roaring 20s party scene. Suspicious about Hannah's behavior, her husband insists that they move back to Riverton (a house he has purchased as Hannah's father went bankrupt) and revive a midsummer party that was an annual event when Hannah and Grace were girls. As we know from the beginning of the novel (since it's the subject of the movie), Robbie dies at this party, witnessed by Hannah and Emmeline.

Grace has a couple of secrets, one of which I guessed a whole sooner than she did (I'm never sure if the author intends for us to know things like this along with the protagonist or before her), and she teases out her story in a slow, tantalizing way. She also shares bits and pieces of her life after she left service. And we get a sympathetic picture of her dying, surrounded by memories and loved ones.

I like a fat, juicy piece of historical fiction, those big family sagas full of details about dress and culture, wronged generations, devastating secrets, and thwarted love. The Shifting Fog fills the bill admirably, with an interesting -- if flawed -- heroine and a nicely foreshadowed trick at the end. I really liked how the fog was not only atmospheric but also metaphoric -- Grace's perceptions keep shifting in and out of the fog of her memory. I see why the title was changed -- Downton Abbey before there was a Downton Abbey -- but something is lost as well. (On the other hand, I'm not quite sure who that prune-faced blonde is on the cover. She just looks moody, not glamorous.)

An Australian actress, Caroline Lee, narrates the novel. She maintains listener interest over the long story with a varied and pleasant delivery. I enjoyed the way she varied Grace's narration: When it's present day, her voice sounds older, weary; when Grace is relating the events of 1914-24, she's livelier, it's a younger voice. She's also very skilled at delineating between Edwardian and late 20th century speech patterns. It's not just the language, but the manner of speaking and Lee makes the difference clear.

Lee voices the novel, but her characterizations are subtle -- the characters are distinguishable, but there's not a lot of dramatic differences. They are appropriate characters, accurately revealing social class and gender. I did hear a few problems: The accents of the novel's American characters sort of come and go. And there were a lot of Australianisms -- particularly elongated vowels and those gloppy "l's." These emerged at will -- plopped down in the middle of otherwise British-sounding pronunciation -- as if she couldn't help herself. Several days later, I'm still hearing her "no's" which don't stop with "o" but stretch out into a kind of "oo"-"i" (which is not in any way a satisfactory way of describing what I heard). It makes for distracted listening, I'm afraid -- so much so that in future I'll limit myself to listening to her read books set in Australia. I think I might eye-read another Kate Morton novel, if I can face the prospect of toting it around for two weeks.

And while I have my cranky pants on, I've got to say my piece about Downton Abbey. People, this is not the first time that an English serial costume drama about rich people and their servants has made it big on this side of the pond. Unfortunately, explaining this means that I have reached the point in life where everything new isn't new to me, and I need to learn to refrain from saying so or my segue into fuddydom will come too soon.

As a Masterpiece Theatre fan from way back, I urge you young folk to seek out some of the great old stuff: I have very fond memories of The Moonstone, the old Sir Peter Wimseys (the star of which also reads the audiobooks), Danger UXB, A Town Like Alice, and the great, great Jewel in the Crown. A few weeks ago, I wallowed in 13 hours of To Serve Them All My Days. Even though today I myself wait for the DVD so I can watch them in one lost weekend, as a kid I really enjoyed the whole serial idea -- patiently waiting over the long weeks for the story to unfold. Go! Seek! Watch! You won't regret it.

[Stenography plays a critical role in Grace's life. This image is from the 1916 book Gregg Shorthand by John Robert Gregg, and was retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.

[This photograph of longtime Masterpiece Theatre host Alistair Cooke in a 1974 photograph from the Library of Congress was retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.]

The Shifting Fog by Kate Morton
Narrated by Caroline Lee
Bolinda Audio, 2006. 18:52

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I'm curious as to what you thought was in the box Hannah left or if the letter was just never transcribed and therefore she never knew about the bank box??