[Also known as The House at Tyneford]
I picked up The Novel in the Viola for a light read, completely wanting a change of pace after finishing up George R.R. Martin's A Dance with Dragons. It follows Austrian-born Elise Landau, youngest daughter of a mother who is a renowned singer and a novelist father. Once rumours of the persecution of Jews start to reach Vienna, Elise's parents encourage her to place a newspaper advertisement in England, leading to Elise securing a job as a housemaid at Tyneford, on the South West coast of the UK. With reassurances that her parents and older sister Margot will send for her as soon as they reach safety in the USA, Elise agrees to take up the post and becomes a somewhat unusual housemaid. She doesn't fit in with the other servants or with the masters, and soon the old class distinctions at the house start to blur. With war approaching and an unsuitable attraction to the master's son, Elise's arrival signals the beginning of the end for the way of life at Tyneford, and for the British class system as a whole.
The Novel in the Viola wasn't quite the light romance that I thought it would be. It showed all signs of heading that way early on, but it also contained a healthy amount of hardships and personal battles for all of the characters. I think I was influenced by Eva Ibbotson's The Secret Countess, a tale about a Russian countess who becomes a maid in England during the Russian Revolution and who has a much more satisfactory time of it than Elise does, decades later. I was anticipating a fairy tale and it didn't quite work out in that way.
My first clue was that Elise was falling for Kit, the son of the owner of the house, far too soon in the story and things between them were remarkably uncomplicated. In light romance novels, the couple don't usually get together until the end but Kit and Elise didn't take very long. Additionally, there weren't enough meddling family members or serious love rivals! The story is light and sweet at the beginning (in a good way), but as soon as the war arrives things get more serious. Elise's parents told her they would be going straight to America themselves, but this turns out to be untrue and Elise is desperate to get them to safety. Kit joins the navy and the D-Day landings are the culmination of months of worry for Elise and everyone at Tyneford.
I liked the way the novel focused on the death of the British upper-class way of life alongside Elise's story. This happens mainly through the butler/ chief of household staff, Wrexham, a symbol of 'old,' you-will-have-your-tea-with-silverware-even-if-bombs-are-coming-through-the-ceiling Britain. Even though the British end up winning the war, certain things were lost forever, whether for good or bad. I know as a Brit myself this is something that I've grown up learning about in history lessons, Britain's declining role in the world after the war and the complete change in society that it brought about.
The Novel in the Viola could easily have missed the mark in several places (especially the ending), but it was always saved by Elise's strong narrative voice. She's lively and a bit sarcastic, and she reminded me of Cassandra from I Capture the Castle;
"Feeling guilty for even thinking it, I wished that I could remember Mr Rivers carrying me in and Kit beside himself with worry. It sounded quite charming, the way Mrs Ellsworth told it. If only I hadn't rather spoilt things by being sick in Mr Rivers' shoes. Violetta or Juliet or Jane Eyre would never have done such a thing."
On the whole, The Novel in the Viola is a solid, well-written book about the life of a Jewish maid in England during World War Two. It might not have been the light book I thought it would be, but I enjoyed it just the same.
Source: Personal copy
First Published: 2011
Score: 4 out of 5
The Secret Countess by Eva Ibbotson - Russian countess is forced to work as a maid in England after the Russian Revolution and falls in love with the son of the house. A well written fairy tale for a cold day.