He wants a wall. A big wall.
It’s 1663, and the royalist Earl of Woldingham has returned from exile during England’s Civil War to Wychwood, his country estate. He agrees with landscape designer John Norris’ plans for tree-lined avenues, ornamental gardens and engineered lakes. But he also wants to enclose the parkland with a high stone wall, and young Norris is uncertain: “I wonder, are we making a second Paradise here, or a prison?’’
It’s a question that haunts Wychwood and its residents through the years, and thus Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s sprawling epic, “Peculiar Ground,’’ which is rather more than your usual English country house novel. Think of it as a saga of a place depicted in gorgeous prose at specific points in the 17th century and then again in the 20th, eras of change and transformation.
An award-winning biographer, Hughes-Hallett layers multiple stories, research, themes and characters. She is obviously enamored of her subject, Wychwood and its people, walls and all.
The first section has an appropriate formal tone as Norris narrates his time at Wychwood, his realization that the wall will disrupt traditions of the tenants, divided by war. He is beguiled by the Earl’s cousin, Cecily Rivers, a dissenter who worships in the woods and befriends a witch.
Their relationship is unresolved when the book jumps 300 years to 1961, when wealthy Lil and Christopher Rossiter entertain visitors for a country house weekend at Wychwood. The wall remains, and many of those who work on the estate bear the same names as their 17th-century counterparts. (Such continuity also shows up in generations of dogs called Lupin and Wully.)
Although the perspective passes from one player to another, interspersed by letters and conversational fragments, 8-year-old Nell Lane, the land agent’s daughter, seems to be everywhere. She trails her father, eavesdrops on the guests’ secret assignations and entanglements. One is a journalist called away from his mistress to Berlin, where a wall of concrete and barbed wire goes up overnight. Another is a spy.
Skip forward to 1971, and Nell brings her new Oxford friends home to Wychwood, where the house party cast is reassembled and new liaisons form. Then it’s 1989, the Berlin Wall is crumbling, and Wychwood’s grounds are open by necessity to tourists and TV cameras. Finally, the ambitious narrative circles back three centuries to Norris and Cecily. Refugees fleeing the plague haunt the countryside, and Wychwood is paradise and prison.
With its clever juxtaposition of past and present and its meditation on time and change, “Peculiar Ground’’ is reminiscent of Tom Stoppard’s play “Arcadia.’’ Walls and people come and go. Place abides.
Writer and books blogger Nancy Pate lives in Orlando and is an ardent Anglophile.
By: Lucy Hughes-Hallett.
Publisher: Harper, 446 pages, $28.99.