THE NEW HOUSE — Buy it here
The New House was given by Lettice Cooper to her nephew’s wife – Jilly Cooper, who writes in her new Persephone Preface: ‘More than forty years later, I still remember how enraptured I was by The New House, staying up all night to finish it.’ Jilly Cooper continues: ‘For, like Charles Dickens and Robert Louis Stevenson, whose biographies Lettice later wrote, she was above all a storyteller, not of action-packed sagas, but of adventures of the heart. All that outwardly happens in The New House is over one long day a family move from a large imposing secluded house with beautiful gardens to a small one overlooking a housing estate. But all the characters and their relationships with each other are so lovingly portrayed that one cares passionately what happens even to the unpleasant ones.
The New House reminds me of my favourite author Chekhov, who so influenced Lettice’s generation of writers. Like him, she had perfect social pitch and could draw an arriviste developer as convincingly as a steely Southern social butterfly. Like him she seldom judged her characters and found humour and pathos in every situation. Part of her genius as a writer is to realise that humans are never consistent, that “hard people will suddenly be tender and gentle people hurt you.” Every time the reader becomes outraged at the monstrous egotism of a character, the kaleidoscope shifts and they do something spontaneously, unexpectedly kind. “I never meant to be a selfish woman,” cries Natalie in a rare and touching moment of self-knowledge, but an adoring husband had made it so easy. “I wish he’d shaken me and told me not to be a little fool.”
Like Chekhov, Lettice is also wonderful on lost love. Both the heroine Rhoda and her maiden Aunt Ellen turn down men whom they love and who love them because they put duty first and are not prepared to abandon their dominating mothers. But before either of them can adjust their haloes, Lettice (or Rhoda) points out: “You lived to be good not happy… It was better to forego your own wishes and enjoy the rarefied happiness from being on the side of the angels.”
Jealousy is also brilliantly depicted. Thus we see Rhoda frantic to escape her mother’s clutches yet unable to hide her resentment that maiden Aunt Ellen, during the move, is suddenly better at calming and looking after Natalie than Rhoda is. While Natalie, having totally enslaved Rhoda, is unable to hide her jealousy that an old school friend, who writes to wish Rhoda luck on the morning of the move, may be loved by Rhoda more than herself.
The New House does not date, and reads as freshly today because above all it is about the shifting balance of power within any family. In our twenty-first century, the grand old house would probably be saved as a listed building and the NIMBYs would be out protesting against anything being built in its place. Unlike them, but like Rhoda, Lettice was a true socialist, who although sad to leave a large, beautiful home, felt her conscience eased because it seemed right that such places should be knocked down to make way for lots of little houses for the poor. ’
PUBLISHER: PERSEPHONE BOOKS
PUBLICATION DATE: 22nd March 2004View all Books