“‘Now do you know how I feel?’ Mrs Gereth asked when in the wondrous hall, three minutes after their arrival, her pretty associate dropped on a seat with a soft gasp and a roll of dilated eyes.”
Henry James, The Spoils of Poynton
My third novel Love in Lindfield takes its structure from Henry James’ novel The Spoils of Poynton. There is a connection to Lindfield in that Henry James visited Charles Eamer Kempe at Old Place in Lindfield around the time the novel was published and there is a fair possibility that he based the character of the dowager Mrs Gereth on one of Kempe’s close female friends, Lady Louisa Wolseley:
“‘Wolseley, come to think of it, perhaps I do know that name,’ he replied. He looked at his notes. ‘Yes, I was looking online last night to see whether Henry James had ever visited Old Place. It turned out he did. I found a letter of his from March 1897 to a Lady Louisa Wolseley where he described such a visit. It sounded like she’d been trying to persuade him to come for some time. The letter’s very precise: he caught the 11.40 from Victoria arriving in Haywards Heath at 1.17 where he met up with Lady Wolseley coming from Brighton. The train was late!’
“‘Nothing’s changed, then!’ laughed Maggie. ‘But yes that would be Frances Wolseley’s mother, I’m sure.’
“Harry went on to read from the notes he’d made on his iPad. ‘James described Kempe as ‘very amiable’ and the house as a ‘phoenix’.
“‘The man himself made the place more wonderful and the place the man. I was greatly affected by his courtesy and charm.’”
The novel describes the struggle between Mrs. Gereth, a widow of impeccable taste and iron will, and her son Owen over a houseful of precious antique furniture. The story is largely told from the viewpoint of Fleda Vetch, a young woman in love with Owen but sympathetic to Mrs. Gereth’s anguish over losing the antiques she patiently collected.
Widow Adela Gereth tells the sensitive and tasteful Fleda Vetch that she’s afraid her son Owen will marry the coarse Mona Brigstock. Owen soon becomes engaged to Mona and wants to take over Poynton, the family home filled with Mrs. Gereth’s carefully collected furniture and other art objects. He would like Fleda to help get his mother to leave the house with a minimum of fuss.
Mrs. Gereth moves to Ricks, the smaller family house. Fleda visits the house and is unhappy that Mrs. Gereth has furnished it with the best pieces from Poynton. Owen says that Mona is angry with the “theft” of the valuable heirlooms. Meanwhile, Owen is becoming more attracted to Fleda instead of the crude Mona and eventually declares his love for her. Fleda insists that he honor his engagement to Mona unless she breaks it off.
I’ve adapted the story and set it in Lindfield. Mrs Gereth is translated to Serena Ross, the widowed owner of Old Place, who is considering downsizing to a house on the common. However she is against giving Old Place to her son Ryan (Owen Gereth) because of his infatuation with the ‘unsuitable’ Monica Malling (Mona Brigstock) the local pub land lady. Our heroine Ellie (Fleda Vetch) is employed by Mrs Gereth to do an inventory of the house prior to Mrs Gereth’s move, but becomes sucked into the family dispute in a way that turns increasingly dangerous for all concerned.
In The Spoils of Poynton, Mrs. Gereth finally returns the fine furniture to Poynton. After a few days Owen and Mona are reported to be married, and they go abroad. Fleda gets a letter from Owen asking her to select any one piece from Poynton as hers to keep. Fleda goes to Poynton but finds it completely consumed by fire.
In my own novel Love in Lindfield… well I’m afraid you’ll have to read the ending for yourself, but it has some dramatic turns of its own!