The House at Riverton by Kate Morton

The House at Riverton by Kate Morton 

I picked up the House at Riverton by Kate Morton and flipped to the back cover. The very bottom line stated ‘one of the most successful debuts of all time’ – now that’s a way to get my attention. Coming in at almost six hundred pages, this was going to be a significant investment of my time. It had better be good I thought as the novel thudded down on the bookshop counter.

You had me at the blurb

The blurb caught my attention, as I’m finding myself increasingly drawn to novels that bridge two distinct time periods. And in the House at Riverton does just that with the lives of two very different Grace Bradley’s. One as a young Riverton Manor housemaid and then much later as a ninety-eight-year-old care home resident. 

And so, it begins

We start with Grace, in the twilight of years, receiving a letter from an enthusiastic director who is in the midst of making a film about the tragic events at Riverton Manor during 1924. The filmmaker knows Grace worked there but what she doesn’t know is that Grace witnessed those traumatic events, and the letter reawakens those long-held secrets and memories that Grace has buried so very deep for so many years.

‘I have been thinking about the day I started at Riverton. I can see it clearly. The intervening years concertina and it is June 1914. I am fourteen again: naive, gauche, terrified, following Nancy up flight after flight of scrubbed elm stairs. Her skirt switches efficiently with every step, each swish an indictment of my own inexperience. I am struggling behind, my suitcase handle cutting my fingers. I lose sight of Nancy as she turns to begin up yet another flight, rely on the swishing to lead the way …’

This is an enjoyable book with its wonderful storytelling and superb historical detail of English society pre- and post-World War I. And central to everything is the Hartford family and more importantly their three children – David, Hannah and Emmeline. Kate Morton seamlessly shifts between the two Grace’s, and we get a real sense of life as it was then.

‘Downstairs, Mr Hamilton had stirred the servants into a frenzy of activity. It was a test of a good staff, he said, not to mention the proof of a butler’s mettle, to serve a household of guests. No request was to prove too much. We were to work as a finely oiled locomotive, rising to meet each challenge, exceeding the Master’s every expectation. It was to be a week of small triumphs, cultivating in the late summer dinner.’

A tale of two parts

The House at Riverton is a tragic love story in part and a piece of twentieth century social commentary on the other. Before World War One people would enter a life of service and it was a given that upstairs dictated the lives of those below stairs. But after so much bloodshed, so many horrors in the trenches and shell-shocked returning soldiers, the social and political landscape began to change – people were no longer as willing to accept orders from those who’d previously been seen as a cut above.

However, not young Grace. Her service to the Hartford family (especially Hannah) came above everything else. And despite the vivid storytelling for this particular twenty-first century reader, I couldn’t sometimes make the leap with young Grace as she sacrificed her own happiness for that of her mistress Hannah. Would Hannah have done the same thing? Of course not, there was a class hierarchy and no matter how close the two women became there would forever be a line, a them and an us.

Following in the footsteps of the past

Grace, as a mother, follows in her mother’s footsteps and has a strained relationship with her daughter. Grace is much closer to her author grandson, Marcus, who at the beginning of the story has gone AWOL, battling grief and guilt over the death of his estranged wife. And it is to this missing grandson that Grace unburdens the past through a series of tapes and records the real events leading up to that sultry 1924 Midsummer evening house party.

In conclusion

The House of Riverton by Kate Morton is an engrossing story. It was definitely time well spent and although I wouldn’t say there were any particular twists or shocks (you can see what’s coming from quite a long way off) it is a thoroughly entertaining ride to get there. So, it’s a thumbs up from me and I for one will be reading more from Kate Morton.