Book review: Paradise and prisons in Lucy Hughes-Hallet’s Peculiar Ground

Over four centuries, the characters of an Oxfordshire estate come and go, their lives and loves a microcosm of the world in Lucy Hughes-Hallett's epic novel.

Lucy Hughes-Hallett, author and cultural historian. Gary Doak / Alamy Stock Photo
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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-year-old 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 nearly 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 jade-green 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.