Morning rooms, walks in the gardens, and pearl-handled butter knives are the trappings of the Torrington family on the Sterne estate – an estate the now-deceased Mr. Torrington wanted for his family. Unfortunately, the grandeur of Sterne is a facade, as the family can no longer sustain their “lord of the manor” lifestyle, and the book opens with Charlotte Torrington’s new husband Edward Swift departing for London to repair the family’s financial situation. Emerald and Clovis, Charlotte’s adult children, are neither impressed nor appreciative, but it’s Emerald’s birthday, and they are expecting guests. When a local train is derailed in the vicinity, however, Sterne is called into service, forcing the Torringtons and their guests to amend their plans and make the best of the intrusion. The train passengers, initially about 10 of them, are put into the morning room, only to multiply each time someone opens the door. A strange, unsettling man, Charlie Traversham-Beechers, alights at Sterne and claims to know Charlotte. But Traversham-Beechers becomes increasingly sinister until his purpose is unmistakeable to the small, conflicted party.
I couldn’t quite get my head around The Uninvited Guests. At first, it’s such a polite novel with undertones of class and financial struggles. However, the longer I read this book, the more I enjoyed it and saw it as an allegory for the fall of the Edwardian era and the changes Britain would soon see with the start of World War I:
Sterne itself has two wings: the Old House and the New House. Both are in disrepair, but the Old House is never inhabited. Life is already changing for these types of families, and the Torringtons are concerned with preserving the appearance of upper class, though there are only two servants, and the cook’s relationship with Charlotte is quite familiar.
When the uninvited guests – the passengers from the derailed train – arrive, no one is particularly concerned about them, other than to worry about the extra work they will cause, and the longer the passengers are denied attention, the more restless they become, and their numbers grow.
Meanwhile, Smudge, the youngest Torrington, is working on a Great Undertaking, and as she gears up for it, the weather changes:
…there was a smell of thunder on the air. Smudge couldn’t have said what thunder smelled like exactly – something like lively coal-dust, perhaps – but knew that she had always known the thick scent of it, as well as that of lightning, which was sharper and apparent to everybody, like gunpowder and lemons. Yes, there was a storm coming, and…she could smell the air charging.
It’s 1912. Storm clouds are indeed gathering, and as they do, the situation in Britain and in the Sterne household becomes more serious. The small party feeds the mass of people, but their attitudes toward them do not change, particularly Charlotte, who refuses even to help with that chore, saying, “She had built her life so that she might avoid third-class carriages and she wasn’t going to wring her hands over those who made use of them now.”
In fact, it isn’t until Traversham-Beechers introduces a game that debases them all that the Torringtons or their party begin to understand their duty. They open up the Old House, taking linens from their own beds to create pallets and comfortable resting places for the passengers, when they are interrupted by Smudge’s Great Undertaking, which must be resolved before the passengers can find rest and the Sterne household finds peace.
I’m not one to typically try to read into a book as much as I have done here, but bear with me: The typical English estate is failing. The family within (who, it is important to note, are not high born) desperately hold onto it, but the desperation is showing in the furniture without cushions and the diminishing staff. The lower classes are slowly invading these spaces, but it isn’t until a Great Undertaking occurs amid stormy skies (World War I) that change is wrought and the lower classes are welcomed into the Old House, tying both new and old together and decreasing the gap between upper and lower classes.
Could I be completely off base? Of course. Was I looking for a way to explain this oddity of a novel? Yes. However, in my experience when you have something that goes into a rather outlandish place, very often there is some sort of extended metaphor. But what you want to really know is: does it work? I’d have to say yes. The novel goes into dark places, much darker than the opening chapters signify, but in the end, its wickedness makes this stand out as a much more interesting novel.
Also, check out the other stops on the book tour for other opinions.