Wy­ch­wood’s voices of par­adise or a prison

Over four cen­turies, the char­ac­ters of an Ox­ford­shire es­tate come and go, their lives and loves a mi­cro­cosm of the world, writes Mal­colm Forbes

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“An en­closed com­mu­nity is toxic,” says Nell Lane, one of the many char­ac­ters in this ca­pa­cious de­but novel. “It fes­ters. It stag­nates. The wrong peo­ple thrive there. The sort of peo­ple who ac­tu­ally like be­ing walled in.”

Pe­cu­liar Ground is full of such wrong peo­ple, all of them in­deed thriv­ing within the cir­cum­scribed do­main and rar­efied realm of Wy­ch­wood, a grand, cen­turies-old Ox­ford­shire es­tate. Be­gin­ning in the 17th cen­tury then switch­ing to the sec­ond-half of the 20th, Lucy Hughes-Hal­lett fol­lows the in­di­vid­ual for­tunes and in­ter­lock­ing in­ti­ma­cies of Wy­ch­wood’s var­i­ous own­ers, work­ers and guests. The re­sult is a boldly orig­i­nal, beau­ti­fully writ­ten work about per­sonal space and shared sanc­tu­ary but also the dan­gers of di­vi­sion and ex­clu­sion.

For the first 60 pages, we are in 1663 and the com­pany of John Nor­ris, Wy­ch­wood’s land­scape-maker (or “land­skip man”). His em­ployer, Lord Wold­ing­ham, re­cently re­turned from ex­ile af­ter the civil war, has tasked Nor­ris with en­clos­ing his park with a huge five-mile wall. Nor­ris at­tempts “to cre­ate an Eden en­com­pass­ing the house” but as the project gets un­der­way he grows scep­ti­cal: “Are we mak­ing a sec­ond Par­adise here, or a prison?”

Nor­ris ex­pe­ri­ences more un­cer­tainty when he be­friends, and falls for, Wold­ing­ham’s cousin, Cecily. He learns of a fam­ily frac­tured by dif­fer­ing po­lit­i­cal al­le­giances and sep­a­rated by war; af­ter a tragic drown­ing he lis­tens to sus­pi­cions of foul play and ac­cu­sa­tions of witch­craft; and af­ter a vi­o­lent melee in a hid­den-away meet­ing-house in the woods, he re­alises the es­tate is no arcadia and the coun­try’s pain is far from healed.

Three hun­dred years later and Wy­ch­wood is the stately pile of Christopher and Lil Ros­siter. Re­plac­ing land­scape-maker John Nor­ris is land agent Hugo Lane, fa­ther of Nell.

Vis­i­tors drop in to stay for a long, hot week­end in 1961. There are shoot­ing par­ties and house par­ties, dips in the pool and drinks on the ter­race. Eight-yearold Nell takes in all man­ner of adult in­trigue, and comes to win­ningly re­sem­ble Henry James’s wide-eyed ob­server Maisie.

But Nell’s is not the only view­point. Hughes-Hal­lett dex­ter­ously tog­gles from one char­ac­ter to an­other, al­low­ing us into the mind­set of jour­nal­ist Ni­cholas, art-dealer (and pos­si­ble spy) An­thony and thwarted lover He­len. The sassy, witty tes­ti­mony of “smart and taut” Lil proves par­tic­u­larly ab­sorb­ing but the novel works best when com­posed of the per­spec­tives of non-Wy­ch­wood res­i­dents, the out­siders look­ing in.

There is much to wit­ness, not least a string of il­licit li­aisons within Wy­ch­wood’s walls and se­cret gar­dens. The novel then ex­pands, tak­ing us from the con­fines of Wy­ch­wood to Ber­lin where an­other wall is be­ing erected – one like that “im­pass­able bar­ri­cade” Nor­ris built to keep in Lord Wold­ing­ham’s “crea­tures”. In­stead of the shadow of civil war, Hughes-Hal­lett’s later events play out against the back­drop of heated cold war. The nar­ra­tive ex­tends fur­ther, cours­ing through the decades and cov­er­ing piv­otal mo­ments: in the 70s, key mar­i­tal breakups, Nell’s sen­ti­men­tal ed­u­ca­tion at Ox­ford and Wy­ch­wood’s trans­for­ma­tion into a com­mune for bright young things; in the 80s, notable deaths, the end of Ber­lin as a “walled gar­den”, and Wy­ch­wood’s role dur­ing the Sal­man Rushdie af­fair.

Hughes-Hal­lett has said she dis­likes big books. But at al­most 500 pages, Pe­cu­liar Ground can­not be termed any­thing other. Its three-page list of drama­tis per­sonae is a drag­net con­tain­ing ev­ery sign of life at Wy­ch­wood – not just fam­ily mem­bers and friends but also but­lers, rangers, gar­den­ers, ar­chi­tects, cooks, stu­dents and, at the last count, six dogs.

“Wy­ch­wood is dif­fer­ent,” Lil says at one point. “Too many peo­ple blow­ing through it.” In places the novel seems to buckle with the com­bined weight of its char­ac­ters and their mus­ings. One of Chekhov’s char­ac­ters de­scribed goose­ber­ries as hard and sour. One of Hughes-Hal­lett’s calls them “hairy semi-trans­par­ent jade­green globes full of vis­cous fluid and lit­tle black pips, the germs of life”. The down­side of heav­ily pop­u­lated pages is that main char­ac­ters get lost in the crowd and be­come un­known quan­ti­ties. And yet the chop­ping and chang­ing of per­son­nel is re­fresh­ing and re­al­is­tic, and, it turns out, one of the novel’s sources of en­ergy. The busy, mul­ti­far­i­ous cast have sin­gu­lar ex­ploits and speak in unique voices. When one slice of life is too ver­bose or un­in­volv­ing, a sparkier and more en­gag­ing one soon re­places it. Less would have been more but Pe­cu­liar Ground is still a tri­umph. At the cen­tre of it stands Wy­ch­wood and long be­fore the book’s last page we ap­plaud Hughes-Hal­lett for skil­fully con­struct­ing a place which man­ages to be not only a re­treat from the world but also a mi­cro­cosm of it.

Mal­colm Forbes is a free­lance writer based in Ed­in­burgh. An Amer­i­can is taken hostage in Pak­istan. Ev­ery night he is blind­folded and bound and a woman vis­its him. She asks mer­ce­nary ques­tions but they soon be­come oddly per­sonal, such as, “Why didn’t he go home for his daugh­ter’s funeral?” A story about sec­ond chances in life.

Gary Doak / Alamy Stock Photo

Lucy Hugh­esHal­lett, au­thor and cul­tural his­to­rian.

All That’s Left to Tell Daniel Lowe Pi­cador, May 4

Pe­cu­liar Ground Lucy Hughes-Hal­lett Fourth Es­tate, Dh57

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