Penguin.com (usa)

Reading Guides

The House at Tyneford
Natasha Solomons
Paperback
Other formats:
ePub eBook: eBook
$16.00
add to cart
Read an excerpt
Read more...

 

INTRODUCTION

With the advent of World War II fast approaching in Europe, Elise Landau and her family realize that it is no longer safe for Jews in Austria. Elise’s father, Julian, and her mother Anna, a novelist and a singer respectively, urge her to advertise herself as a domestic servant in England and trade the loving, bourgeois lifestyle to which she was born for an interim life of servitude away from the Nazi threat. Traveling with only her clothes, a few smuggled keepsakes, and Julian’s secret unpublished manuscript hidden in an old viola, Elise embarks with great trepidation for her new life at the estate of Tyneford, owned by Christopher Rivers.

Between worrying about her still endangered parents and struggling to adjust to her new life, Elise learns very quickly how much she has left behind. But when Mr. Rivers’ fun–loving son, Kit, returns home, a romance erupts between him and Elise that challenges the aristocratic orthodoxy. Despite his devotion, Kit gets pulled into the war, in a test of their love and the fading of a bygone era.

The House at Tyneford is a story of the possibility of transcending social and class boundaries, as well as a novel about tradition, change, loss, and enduring love.


ABOUT NATASHA SOLOMONS

Natasha Solomons is a screenwriter and the internationally bestselling author of Mr. Rosenblum Dreams in English. She lives with her husband in Dorset, England.


A CONVERSATION WITH NATASHA SOLOMONS

Q. Tyneford is as much a character as any of its denizens. How did you go about sculpting the setting for this novel? What importance does a setting have for you and your characters?

The inspiration for Tyneford is Tyneham, a “ghost” village on the Dorset coast forcibly abandoned during the Second World War. The story in the novel of how the village was emptied is based on fact. There was a great manor house there, but I’ve never seen it—it lies deep within the Ministry of Defence lands and is still part of a firing range. Footpaths run along the coast and past a few of the ruined cottages (they are bullet ridden and mostly collapsed) but visitors are only allowed occasionally. The place has haunted me since childhood and writing the novel was really like playing a vast game of doll’s houses: I was able to fill the manor and cottages with people again and imagine the village as it might have been. I found some old photographs and floor plans of the house in a book, which I pinned above my desk, and my husband discovered a Victorian print of it in a little shop and had it framed for my birthday. I think that houses like Tyneford belong to a period with staff and servants. I love the romance, but I think my stone cottage is a bit more manageable. Even so, I do love a mullioned window.

The sea is very important in the novel. It both divides Elise from the people she loves and haunts her dreams, but also it provides some sort of solace. From everywhere in Tyneford, she can hear the sound of the sea—I think over time that has a profound affect on you. The sea is certainly a character within the novel.

Q. This story begins at the threshold of World War II. What sort of research did you do in preparation for writing this novel? What challenges did you face in the process? What elements of the time period did you focus on to achieve authenticity?

I immersed myself in literature of the period. I spent weeks in the summer house at the bottom of the garden, reading classic books from Mariana to Mollie Panter–Downes’ wartime stories, as well as lots of Daphne du Maurier, Evelyn Waugh, and nonfiction accounts of life in service and the country house tradition. My husband and I also had a season watching old movies like Brief Encounter, In Which We Serve, and the original series of Brideshead Revisited—movies really help me tune my ear to the speech patterns. I like to be gently marinated in the culture and time period before I start to write, then I find it feels instinctive.

Q. Elise Landau is thrust into a demoralizing situation but comes out a strong female character. From whom did you draw inspiration for Elise? What aspects of her story were most interesting for you to write about?

Elise Landau is inspired by my great–aunt Gabi Landau, who, with the help of my grandmother, managed to escape Nazi Europe by becoming a “mother’s help” in England. Many refugees escaped this way on a “domestic service visa”—swapping cosseted lives for the harsh existence of English servants. I read a series of articles by Austrian and German women who had been domestic servants in Britain, and also spoke to several ladies in London. One woman I spoke to had never even put on her own stockings before she came to England—she had a maid to do it for her. In London she became a char (a kind of cleaner).

Elise likes to think of herself as a heroine. The word makes her want to stand very tall and flick her hair. Elise was so easy to write, an absolute pleasure. When I started writing, I realised that she wanted me to get out of the way and let her tell her own story. I think in this instance I felt rather like I was the reader.

Q. Elise gets a pearl necklace from her mother. Have you ever had a very special gift from someone before? Would you tell me something more about that, why was it so special for you, etc.?

Many of the objects in the novel are real and have been passed down through my family. Elise’s pearl necklace was my grandmother’s and now belongs to my mother. The painting of Elise as a young girl is inspired by a painting of my grandmother from about 1920—she wears a white muslin dress, jaunty headband, and white socks. Her dark hair is bobbed and she smiles as though about to laugh, as her eyes follow you about the room. As a child, I spent hours gazing at her and wondering how it was that wherever I sat—on the sofa, under the table, peeking out from behind the curtain—that she still watched me. That girl became the image for Elise Landau—the portrait inspiring both Elise’s physical likeness and also the irreverent mischief of her personality.

Other paintings and jewels smuggled to England similarly found their way into the story (the chunky gold bracelet that generations of Landau babies had been given to teethe upon, the silver bell that was rung to summon diners into a thousand dinners).

Q. The House at Tyneford is epic in scope and theme. What do you want your readers to take away from this novel? What parallels do you see between Elise’s story and the world of today?

The stories I write are often about characters at the edge of history—they are affected by epic events but do not experience them directly; for instance, when Elise is left behind while the men go off to war. She sees the damage, physical and psychological, as the men return from Dunkirk, but she is not there herself. Waiting and uncertainty for those at home is an aspect of every conflict. In a way the novel is about silences and the empty spaces people leave behind when they vanish. The music and the sea are huge parts of the novel, filling it with sounds, which are punctuated by these silences Elise feels as people she loves disappear.

Q. Why do you think the novel in the viola is blank?

I think that this is really a question for the reader to decide. It might be damage from the salt sea air or smoke. It’s possible that Julian made a mistake and inserted a void copy. But I suppose I believe that Julian always knew that one day his daughter would be a writer and like every writer she’d be unable to face a blank page and resist the urge to fill it. I think perhaps it was his last gift to her.

Q. What are you working on now?

I’m lost in my third novel The Gallery of Vanished Husbands. I’m not ready to talk about it just yet—I’m at that greedy stage of writing when I keep my characters close. Also, I think one has to be wary—new books are fragile things in the beginning and one has to be careful not to talk them out of existence.

Q. Tyneford is as much a character as any of its denizens. How did you go about sculpting the setting for this novel? What importance does a setting have for you and your characters?

The inspiration for Tyneford is Tyneham, a “ghost” village on the Dorset coast forcibly abandoned during the Second World War. The story in the novel of how the village was emptied is based on fact. There was a great manor house there, but I’ve never seen it—it lies deep within the Ministry of Defence lands and is still part of a firing range. Footpaths run along the coast and past a few of the ruined cottages (they are bullet ridden and mostly collapsed) but visitors are only allowed occasionally. The place has haunted me since childhood and writing the novel was really like playing a vast game of doll’s houses: I was able to fill the manor and cottages with people again and imagine the village as it might have been. I found some old photographs and floor plans of the house in a book, which I pinned above my desk, and my husband discovered a Victorian print of it in a little shop and had it framed for my birthday. I think that houses like Tyneford belong to a period with staff and servants. I love the romance, but I think my stone cottage is a bit more manageable. Even so, I do love a mullioned window.

The sea is very important in the novel. It both divides Elise from the people she loves and haunts her dreams, but also it provides some sort of solace. From everywhere in Tyneford, she can hear the sound of the sea—I think over time that has a profound affect on you. The sea is certainly a character within the novel.

Q. This story begins at the threshold of World War II. What sort of research did you do in preparation for writing this novel? What challenges did you face in the process? What elements of the time period did you focus on to achieve authenticity?

I immersed myself in literature of the period. I spent weeks in the summer house at the bottom of the garden, reading classic books from Mariana to Mollie Panter–Downes’ wartime stories, as well as lots of Daphne du Maurier, Evelyn Waugh, and nonfiction accounts of life in service and the country house tradition. My husband and I also had a season watching old movies like Brief Encounter, In Which We Serve, and the original series of Brideshead Revisited—movies really help me tune my ear to the speech patterns. I like to be gently marinated in the culture and time period before I start to write, then I find it feels instinctive.

Q. Elise Landau is thrust into a demoralizing situation but comes out a strong female character. From whom did you draw inspiration for Elise? What aspects of her story were most interesting for you to write about?

Elise Landau is inspired by my great–aunt Gabi Landau, who, with the help of my grandmother, managed to escape Nazi Europe by becoming a “mother’s help” in England. Many refugees escaped this way on a “domestic service visa”—swapping cosseted lives for the harsh existence of English servants. I read a series of articles by Austrian and German women who had been domestic servants in Britain, and also spoke to several ladies in London. One woman I spoke to had never even put on her own stockings before she came to England—she had a maid to do it for her. In London she became a char (a kind of cleaner).

Elise likes to think of herself as a heroine. The word makes her want to stand very tall and flick her hair. Elise was so easy to write, an absolute pleasure. When I started writing, I realised that she wanted me to get out of the way and let her tell her own story. I think in this instance I felt rather like I was the reader.

Q. Elise gets a pearl necklace from her mother. Have you ever had a very special gift from someone before? Would you tell me something more about that, why was it so special for you, etc.?

Many of the objects in the novel are real and have been passed down through my family. Elise’s pearl necklace was my grandmother’s and now belongs to my mother. The painting of Elise as a young girl is inspired by a painting of my grandmother from about 1920—she wears a white muslin dress, jaunty headband, and white socks. Her dark hair is bobbed and she smiles as though about to laugh, as her eyes follow you about the room. As a child, I spent hours gazing at her and wondering how it was that wherever I sat—on the sofa, under the table, peeking out from behind the curtain—that she still watched me. That girl became the image for Elise Landau—the portrait inspiring both Elise’s physical likeness and also the irreverent mischief of her personality.

Other paintings and jewels smuggled to England similarly found their way into the story (the chunky gold bracelet that generations of Landau babies had been given to teethe upon, the silver bell that was rung to summon diners into a thousand dinners).

Q. The House at Tyneford is epic in scope and theme. What do you want your readers to take away from this novel? What parallels do you see between Elise’s story and the world of today?

The stories I write are often about characters at the edge of history—they are affected by epic events but do not experience them directly; for instance, when Elise is left behind while the men go off to war. She sees the damage, physical and psychological, as the men return from Dunkirk, but she is not there herself. Waiting and uncertainty for those at home is an aspect of every conflict. In a way the novel is about silences and the empty spaces people leave behind when they vanish. The music and the sea are huge parts of the novel, filling it with sounds, which are punctuated by these silences Elise feels as people she loves disappear.

Q. Why do you think the novel in the viola is blank?

I think that this is really a question for the reader to decide. It might be damage from the salt sea air or smoke. It’s possible that Julian made a mistake and inserted a void copy. But I suppose I believe that Julian always knew that one day his daughter would be a writer and like every writer she’d be unable to face a blank page and resist the urge to fill it. I think perhaps it was his last gift to her.

Q. What are you working on now?

I’m lost in my third novel The Gallery of Vanished Husbands. I’m not ready to talk about it just yet—I’m at that greedy stage of writing when I keep my characters close. Also, I think one has to be wary—new books are fragile things in the beginning and one has to be careful not to talk them out of existence.


DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

  1. Who is Elise Landau? When we first meet her, she is about to become a domestic servant in England. What draws you to this character?

  2. Poppy observes that Tyneford is “an odd place.it’s not like anywhere else.” What is your first impression of the Tyneford estate and its environs? How is it different from Elise’s life in Vienna and what she expects? How does it differ from what you expected?

  3. What personal and cultural sacrifices does Elise make in her transition from Austria to her new life in England? How does her role as domestic servant affect her? How does the staff see her? How does Mr. Rivers see her?

  4. Elise points out how different Kit is from other boys she knows. What is your first impression of Kit? Are you drawn to him? How would you describe his relationship with his father, Mr. Rivers?

  5. A confrontation with Diana inspires Elise to shock the partygoers during Kit’s birthday. What was your reaction to this moment? How did it affect Kit and Elise’s relationship? How did it change the way Mr. Rivers and the staff at Tyneford saw Elise?

  6. What sacrifices does Mr. Rivers make to help Elise and her family? What did this tell you about Mr. Rivers? How would you describe his feelings toward Elise as the novel progresses?

  7. Kit and Elise’s romance stirs up a great deal of emotion in and around Tyneford. What is your opinion of how Mr. Rivers receives the news of Kit’s love for Elise? What social and class challenges do you feel Kit and Elise faced?

  8. What was your opinion of Kit’s decision regarding his involvement in the war? What do you feel motivated him in this decision? How did his relationships with Elise and his father affect his decision?

  9. What happens to Kit? How does this affect Elise and Mr. Rivers? How does it affect the relationship between them?

  10. The danger of war comes home when Elise spots a German fighter flying near Tyneford. What is significant about this event? What do you gather about Elise’s character from her reaction to this moment?

  11. What does Elise discover about the novel Julian hid in the viola? What did you make of this turn of events? What impact does it have on Elise? What piece of work does the novel inspire and what significance does it have for Elise in the end?

  12. What is your opinion of where Mr. Rivers and Elise’s relationship ends up? As you see it, what events led to Tyneford’s fate? What significance did Tyneford have to Elise, Kit, and Mr. Rivers? Can a place like Tyneford exist in today’s world?