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The Uninvited Guests by Sadie Jones
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May 14, 12


The country state of Sterne: the house of the Torrignton family.

This story begins and ends on the last day of April in 1912, the day Emerald Torrington turns 20. To celebrate, a small dinner for family and friends (Emerald’s stepfather Edward the only obvious absentee) and as the day starts, the entire household prepare for the evening. Florence, the housekeeper runs the show along with Emerald, whilst her mother Charlotte (still a great beauty, remarried to Edward after Emerald’s father’s death) and brother Clovis proceed on their usual self-absorbed ways. Unbeknownst to them all, Smudge, the youngest member of the family is taking advantage of the fact that no one pays attention to her to start her Grand Undertaking. In the meantime, they expect the invited guests: John Buchanan, a rich neighbour who may or may not be interested in Emerald and Emerald’s best friend Patience and her (pleasantly matured) brother Ernest, both budding scientists whose company Emerald enjoyed greatly when they were all children.

But then a train accident occurs nearby and since theirs is the closest house, the survivors – all of them from the third class but for one man, a Charlie Traversham-Beechers – are to be received at Sterne. The uninvited guests –apart from Charlie, now Clovis’ best friend and invited for dinner with the family- are hastily stowed away in the morning room while the family pretends they are not there, hoping they will be gone soon and without too much disruption to their dinner party.

As the night progresses, those hopes are quashed. The survivors grow loud with hunger and neglect; Smudge’s Grand Undertaking goes awry and on centre stage, the dinner party becomes increasingly strange and dark as Charlie entrances and perplexes everybody with his uncomfortable games.

The Uninvited Guests was not at all what I expected but its combination of an Edwardian comedy of manners with a surrealist ghost story (and a dash of adorable romance) worked really well for me. I really do wish I had literary equivalents to compare but alas, it seems that my Edwardian and Surrealist knowledge are informed by movies and TV shows so the best way to describe The Uninvited Guests is: this is like an episode of Downton Abbey directed by Spanish surrealist filmmaker Luis Buñuel.

There are huge differences between this and Downton Abbey though. Despite appearances the Torringtons are not well-off: their staff has been dwindling over the years with only enough servants to keep the house running, part of their house is inhabitable, their furniture have seen better days and most worrying of all, they are on the brink of losing Sterne to debts. The problem is exacerbated by the fact that their future lies on the hand of Edward Swift, their mother’s new husband whom Charlotte married after Emerald’s father’s death. Although Edward is obviously a good man, Emerald and Clovis resent him. Above all, the biggest difference is that the Torringtons are not aristocrats and although they love Sterne and wish to keep it, this love is new as new is their position in society:

" Charlotte had built her life so that she might avoid third-class train carriages and she wasn’t going to wring her hands over those who made use of them now."

The quote below is emblematic for two reasons. It shows how much Charlotte wishes to dissociate from lower classes as she literally separate social classes by pushing the third class passengers away from their eyes for as long as they can. If the aristocrats of Downton Abbey are portrayed as magnanimous do-gooders who help their servants that is only because they can effectively be separated from them and there is absolutely no danger for those aristocrats to be thought as lower class. There is a lot of danger for Charlotte after she made her way up the social strata.

This is also emblematic of Charlotte’s character. She is completely unsympathetic as a character and yet not completely vilified – not even when her past is revealed. This bit is probably too spoilery but I don’t feel I can write this review without addressing it. I will leave aside HOW and WHY these come into play but there are revelations about her past as a prostitute and these revelations are moved by a need for revenge – as though by revealing the truth about her past, all the other characters are supposed to revile Charlotte. This thankfully doesn’t happen – except for one character that reacts with disgust to this information but is subsequently confronted by his hypocrisy. Charlotte is someone who has incorporated ideals of what constitutes the “feminine” realm as she climbed the ladder: she abhors Emerald’s friend Patience for her intellect and hopes that Emerald will not follow her lead (Patience is attending university : how is that a place for a woman?). Emerald herself has a keen interest on science but has put it aside when her father became ill and the narrative explores – albeit subtly – her present situation which is almost like limbo: where will she go from here? Is there a place in this society for women scientists? So gender and class relations abound in the narrative but in a subtle, clever way and I loved it.

There is a lot more though and I loved the prose:

" ‘This helpless grief over what amounts to a few rooms and a rather poor roof is irrational,’ she began, ‘and frankly –‘ she stopped walking, ‘ – ludicrous.’

She turned her face to the house, the windows of which glowed variously. ‘There’s no use looking at me like that,’ she said to it.

She crossed the gravel, and went towards the other part of the garden, where were the thick borders and sundial. ‘And there’s not even the excuse of ancestry!’ she said out loud again, and indignant.

And it was true; no generations of Torringtons had lived at Sterne. No generations of Torringtons had lived anywhere particularly, as far as they knew. They were a wandering, needs-must sort of family, who made their livings disparately, in clerking, mills or shipping; traveled to France for work in tailoring, or stopped at home in Somerset, Shropshire or Suffolk, to play some minor role in greater projects; designing a lowly component of a reaching Cathedral or girdered bridge. Some had been in business, one or two in service; there was an artist, some soldiers, all dead. All dead. "

In terms of plot, the story starts off light and becomes increasingly tense as the story (and the evening) progresses. Charlie obviously plays an almost devilish role and when he starts his mind games and the story takes a turn to the surreal, the good-natured characters show their potential for cruelty inside. Although there seems to be little consequence to what these characters show of themselves, there is a degree of choice too: the characters pick which face they wish to carry in life and from that moment on, that’s who they will be. It is as though cruelty and darkness are potential, not facts set in stone as the story reaches its climax on a high note.

Although at times I thought the surrealist parts were a bit too extreme (there is some barking involved) and the ending too tidy (I still loved it though), overall The Uninvited Guests was a surprising delight.
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message 1: by Marta (new) - added it

Marta Acosta Hi, I just came across this book as I was looking through Amazon and it sounds like something I'd enjoy. Love social social satire and I don't have a problem with unsympathetic characters.


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