Set in both the 1660s and the 1960s, this debut novel explores the workings of a fictional English manor house called Wychwood. In the 1660s world, the newly restored Lord Woldingham hires landscape architect Mr. Norris to create the elaborate waterways that will eventually mark the estate. While fastidious in his work, Norris misses many subtle clues to the delicate social balance of the Wychwood residents, recovering from the upheaval of the Civil War and the Restoration. Norris blunders into many unenviable positions, driven not only by his desire to create beauty, but also his desire for Lord Woldingham’s niece, Cecily. Pursuing Cecily’s company leads Norris to question the unusual way Wychwood was run while Lord Woldingham was exiled.
The modern section of the novel begins during a weekend house party in the 1960s. During that weekend, marriages and lovers break at the estate, while the bond between East and West dissolves in Germany with the overnight building of the Berlin Wall. The core of these characters come together again in 1973 and 1989, as bonds coalesce and loyalties shift, yet all the while, Wychwood remains. The aristocrats change, but the land is always cared for by the same families: the Slatters, the Greens, the Goodyears, the Armstrongs, the Underhills, and the Lanes.
This is a lush read, as Hughes-Hallett allows Wychwood room to expand as a personality on the page. However, some of the characters’ stories seem extraneous and shallow in comparison to the house itself. I enjoyed the conflicts of the 1660s more, as the Restoration and outbreak of Plague carry more weight as an external plotline than the 1961 discussion of the Berlin Wall from the safety of Wychwood. But the main takeaway and most gratifying exploration of this novel is the big theme that seems as important today as it was during the Restoration. Who gets in, and who stays out?