I’ve been more than a little distracted of late, what with marking midterms, moving into a new flat and getting used to a new neighbourhood, and most recently, cajoling my new dog, an adorable but seriously traumatised little beagle, whose previous masters abandoned her along a busy highway. In the meantime, books to be reviewed have been piling up, without my managing to find time to make any headway, or even choose which one to start with. Three days ago, I finally had a few hours to spare and sat down at my desk – with a mug of coffee and a sigh of contentment – to catch up on some of the blogs I follow. Reading of Anbolyn’s enthusiasm for Mary Stewart on Gudrun’s Tights, I was reminded that I had a Mary Stewart novel of my own waiting to be reviewed.
I picked up Rose Cottage in Cambridge, one evening when I was browsing at Heffers after an afternoon in the King’s College archives. There were only ten minutes till closing time and I was desperate to find something good to read that night. So when I saw Mary Stewart’s name – and a lovely title I had never even heard about! – I pounced.
Kate has been sent by her ailing grandmother to clear out Rose Cottage, prior to its being sold. Though Kate grew up there, she hasn’t been back to Rose Cottage for many years: the Second World War, her brief marriage to an RAF pilot, and her new life in London have all played their part in separating her from her childhood home. But in the village, things have barely changed: the milkman still makes his way from door to door every morning with his old horse, Rosy, to deliver the milk and the latest gossip; the rotting framework of the gypsy caravan is still out in the lane where the gypsies used to camp (and still has the power to frighten); and to many, Kate is still little Kathy, whose mother created such a stir by bearing her out of wedlock and then running off with the gypsies one night, never to return.
Before long, however, the present becomes as perplexing and full of mystery as Kate’s past: someone has been digging in the earth around the woodshed, the neighbours have strange tales to tell of lights flashing about the house at dead of night, and the secret cubbyhole where Kate’s grandmother kept the family papers and a few items of value has been broken into and emptied of its contents. And one afternoon, Kate makes a shocking discovery that challenges everything she thought she knew about her mother. With the help of her dotty neighbours and her former school friend Davey, Kate sets out to find out the truth once and for all.
Rose Cottage is different from the other Mary Stewarts I have read so far. There are no murders in it, no criminals (unless you count Kate’s spiteful and bigoted great-aunt Betsy), no desperate acts or hair-raising adventures. It is a quiet novel, even the family drama in it rather muted. Written fifty years after the events recounted, it is full of nostalgia for the hedgerows and village life of the post-war era. The presence of the gypsies on the outskirts of the village, though nothing more than a memory now, introduces a vaguely sinister and threatening note into this respectable little community, which, coupled with Kate’s mother’s fascination with them, instantly brings to mind D. H. Lawrence’s short story The Virgin and the Gypsy. It is perhaps not as thrilling a read as Stewart’s earlier novels, but it is nonetheless engrossing – and it kept me up until four in the morning that night in Cambridge!
© Florence Berlioz 2011