When I finished reading Dorothy Whipple’s “Someone at a Distance” I enjoyed it so much I couldn’t wait to start the next from this author. “Greenbanks” had good reviews so I decided to pick up a copy and immediately immersed myself in the lives of the Ashton family.
Louisa Ashton has a large family. Her husband Robert is handsome and unfortunately (in Regency terms), a ‘rake’. However Louisa had long ago reconciled herself to his bouts of perfidy and comforted herself with her children: “What if Robert was too gay for his age – which was fifty-six and also hers? What if her life with him had been nothing like she had hoped? At this moment, it did not matter; she was happy. Her children and grandchildren were gathered round her, enjoying the dinner she had prepared with such care…”
Jim, the eldest son, is still living at home when this novel begins. Not a very likable character (or son), Jim looks out for his own interests. We don’t see or hear much from either Thomas or Rose since they are married with children and their families both live in nearby towns, although they occasionally show up for family holidays. There is the charming favorite (and careless) son, Charles who will go off to Africa and come home with exotic pets, and later is sent off when World War 1 begins. And there is the beautiful but obstinate Laura who marries the wrong man out of pique.
The discontented, unhappy Letty and her family are fortunate enough to live nearby and often appear at Greenbanks. Although Letty’s husband Ambrose is difficult and controlling, her daughter Rachel’s nurturing relationship with her grandmother Louisa becomes the centerpiece in this novel.
When Louisa’s husband Robert is unexpectedly thrown from his carraige, the family must move on without him, but life does not seem to change very much. Ambrose is handed control over the legacy left to the acquiescent Louisa, and indulges in dangerous speculations.
Louisa is content to be a mother and grandmother, and perhaps the core of this novel is the changing roles of women and society that war ushers in so quickly. Letty, caught in a difficult marriage, is hoping for something to change.
“Her mother, although Letty never complained openly, often reminded her in obscure and diffident ways that she had her children; set them before her, as if to point out that here was the be-all and end-all of her existence. But Letty could not feel that…” And so we have two contrasts here; Louisa, Letty’s mother, has grown up in the age of tradition and accepted her role, but Letty wants more. Louisa is content to let life happen as it comes; Laura and Letty, both sisters, decide that the choices they make are not irrevocable.
Louisa was not too wrapped up in her family though to reach out to the lost and forsaken, and if anyone fits that description it is the unfortunate Kate Barlow. Standards today have greatly changed but in this time period bearing a child out of wedlock was a great scandal, one that Kate had never allowed herself to recover from. Louisa, throwing the conventions of the day aside, resists all the advice from her grown children and takes Kate in, hoping their friendship will endure and bring comfort to the lonely young woman. Kate takes solace in her exquisite needlework, eventually making intricate linens for the local church with hopes of gaining the handsome vicar’s admiration.
I have to say that I did not enjoy this novel as much as others from this author. Many of the characters in “Greenbanks” have unhappy lives with unresolved (at least satisfyingly) challenges. The most realistically drawn character, perhaps because we become familiar with her from childhood and accompany her throughout her growing up years, is the determined, intelligent Rachel. Despite her domineering father, Rachel fights for her education in a day when women are not encouraged to pursue the higher levels of learning.
I found “Greenbanks” to be a fast read and I simply had to find out what would happen in the lives of these characters that I became so immersed in.