The Servants’ Quarters by Lynn Freed

Reviewed by Rima Walker

Picture18I like Lynn Freed’s writing. Her prose is spare and direct without a single purple phrase or sentence, and she aptly captures the voice of our forthright protagonist and narrator, the young Cressida, 9 years old at the novel’s beginning. By the same token the voice changes with each character we meet throughout the book: Cressida’s pretty, unmotherly mother whose eye is always on the main chance, her strange family savior, Mr. Harding, down to the least of the people we meet, such as Phineas, a servant to Cressida’s family, taking care of her father. Each has a distinctive voice so well wrought by Freed through Cressida that if you concentrate, you can hear their voices and know which one is speaking, some from the upper classes, some close to the bottom. Each character has idiosyncrasies; each stands apart from what Cressida calls “normal”. She considers herself a misfit.

Cressida and her family are Jews living in South Africa in the 50s, not that long after the end of World War II, and themes of war, anti-Semitism, and the Holocaust run pretty much throughout the novel. Her sister Miranda has terrible nightmares about German soldiers climbing over a wall, and later when Cressida is living in Mr. Harding’s house she starts having the same dreams, waking up screaming. Her father is an invalid who dies during the course of the story, leaving Cressida without the knowledge of the secret she is sure he carried that would have a profound influence on her life and the way she sees the world around her.  Bereft after his death and temporarily homeless because her mother had to sell their home, a neighbor, the horribly scarred Mr. Harding, who was an air force pilot, takes them into his home, a rather large estate. He lives there with his mother, who is probably somewhere in the midst of Alzheimer’s, and various servants.

Mr. Harding offers them the servants’ quarters, and Cressida considers herself a servant because Mr. Harding gives her the job of changing Edgar (Mr. H’s nephew) from a timid little mouse into a creature “wild and daring”; Cressida hardly succeeds. She also reads to Mr. Harding’s mother who wants to hear the Forsythe Saga over and over again. But as repelled by Mr. Harding’s mutilated face as she is, the teen-aged Cressida feels a certain attraction even though he loses his temper often and bellows loudly enough to strike fear into anyone in his way. For Cressida, fear and something else: “. . .as soon as I came into the house, Mr. Harding burst out of his study, his whole head on fire. His eye was wild and he looked as if he’d hit me. . . .I just dropped my case and threw my arms around his neck, sobbing against his chest.” Strange behavior for one who is terrified of him.

How the relationship turns out is one of the secrets the novel contains right to the end, but the assiduous reader will follow it to the end because there is more than one secret hidden away: What were the real reasons behind her father’s injuries? How does Cressida feel about Mr. Harding as she grows towards maturity, and how do her feelings change back and forth as she tries to fathom them? What does Mr. Harding really feel about her as he watches her grow? What position does Cressida’s mother take as she sees Cressida attempt to outgrow her servant status and become an individual who can make decisions for herself, even if some of them are quite wrong. This is a coming of age story as Cressida grows from childhood to adulthood, slowly learning more about herself and what she wants from life and how to achieve it.

All the characters are dysfunctional and are living in a country where the class system exists and where people from both ends of it collide, a strange place to be in if you are a displaced Jew and a stranger to that system. Cressida, even as a child, feels she doesn’t belong, that she is different from everyone else, that she is the one who is “wild and daring”. Mr. Harding says that watching her grow has been “like watching a rogue cub upset the pride”.

Within this strange ménage the important thing Cressida learns is that she must be in control of herself and others around her to know if she is servant or master. Perhaps Cressida and her mother and sister represent three different ways of fitting into this system to get by. Her mother marries a “vulgar” man who has a great deal of money, buying Cressida’s home and moving everyone back into it. Her sister Miranda gets pregnant and lives away from the family. Cressida tries to blend in, but with fits of anger and frustration and a lot more. But she is an amazing and complicated person, wise beyond her years.

Does anything about this novel remind you of Jane Eyre?  ~