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‘The House at Riverton’: All the secrets a life in service can hold

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The House at Riverton by Kate Morton

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From a maid who spent her young adult years hiding the secrets of the aristocracy and covering their past, then as an archaeologist who uncovered its truths, and finally a grandmother of the writer to whom she tells her memoir, Grace Bradley unravels her narrative working for a wealthy family at the Riverton mansion in early 20th century England. She decides to finally reveal the truth to her grandson, Marcus, who has recently lost his wife and his desire to write any more novels.To inspire him, and to reveal the secret connections that bound her in secrecy as witness to a tragedy that history recorded incorrectly, Grace unveils how Hannah and Emmeline, the two wealthy sisters of Riverton, both loved and lost the same man, a childhood friend of their dead brother’s who fought with him in WWI. Haunting, romantic, inevitably tragic and beautiful, and a revelation of so many secrets a life can hold. With its culmination in the most tragic finale, and brilliantly succinct analogies, this book demands to be immediately reread after a mind-boggling perspective that the suspenseful final chapters offer. It is also a must-read in the interlude for fans nervously anticipating the beauteous drama of the next season of Downton Abbey.

Recommendations:

The Return of the Soldier by Rebecca West is a short story about a soldier with PTSD who also cannot seem to overcome the past, though in this tale, his wife and sister must convince him that nearly a decade has passed and he is married to a different woman than he was engaged to.

Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier is a classic that obviously inspired much of “Riverton,” from its opening reverie, to its tragic end of a vital character at a boathouse, and many other items in between, including the gardens, house size and structure, a fateful party that spurs tragedy, and even the time settings are not far apart.

“The Kelpie,” which is a short story in the book Wonders of the Invisible World by Patricia McKillip, is a fantasy story about another girl who is torn between worlds, and loves, and searches for adventure and inspiration in places that bring her more than enough to satiate her for the rest of her lifetime.

Upstairs Downstairs is the book that inspired the BBC show “Downton Abbey,” and is very similar in contrasting the lives of the upper and lower classes by including personal accounts and perspectives from each.

Sherlock Holmes, Hans Christian Andersen, "The Lady of Shalott," Jane Eyre, Frankenstein, "The Castle of Otranto," Bleak House, and The Mysterious Affair at Styles are all mentioned within the book, The House at Riverton, though not all with enthusiasm. Of all these, Jane Eyre is most like (and was probably most influential in the writing of) The House at Riverton.

Other books by Kate Morton include: The Distant Hours, The Forgotten Garden, and The Secret Keeper.

The Recipe:

Because raspberry tartlets are Hannah’s favorite dessert, and lemon cake, or lemon-curd tart- are frequent desserts served to and by Grace, as well as lemonade being served to the young sisters by Grace on a monumental day in their lives, when tragedy first began to befall the family in the form of death. It was also on this day that Grace prognosticated that “there is always a forgotten sister.” The two desserts/ fruits were merged into one dessert individual raspberry lemon tarts to contrast the two main characters and their disparate connections and the parallels in their lives. However, if you prefer strawberries to lemons, that would be a simple substitution, and keeping with the theme of the story, as that is the accompanying fruit the girls were eating on the day Grace served them lemonade at the fountain.

Raspberry Lemon Cream Tarts
By: Lauren’s Latest, Yield: 12 tarts

Ingredients:
2 whole 9-inch Pie Crust, Uncooked
1 can Sweetened Condensed Milk (14 Oz)
3 whole Egg Yolks
2 Tablespoons Lemon Zest
½ cups Fresh Lemon Juice
1 1/2 cups fresh raspberries
1 1/2 cups Heavy Whipping Cream
¼ cups Powdered Sugar
1 teaspoon Vanilla Extract

Directions:
Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Using a glass or round cookie cutter, cut chilled pie crust into 2-3 inch circles and place into muffin tins to form tart shells. Refrigerate.
In small bowl, mix sweetened condensed milk, egg yolks, lemon zest and lemon juice together until evenly combined. Spoon evenly between tart shells and bake 10-15 minutes or until filling is set and crust is cooked.
Cool tarts to room temperature, then cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate until completely chilled (at least 2 hours.)
Before serving, whip cream with powdered sugar and vanilla until stiff peaks form. Pipe a skinny border around the edges of every tart. Fill with fresh raspberries. Pipe more cream over top berries to cover. Garnish with more fresh raspberries. Refrigerate until ready to serve.

Discussion Questions:

  1. As we get older, does it seem that “moths have torn holes in my recent memories,” but “the distant past is sharp and clear?” Why is it true for Grace; does it have to do with the tragic nature of her past and its inescapability?
  2. Why do people seem to carry the impression that “the elderly cannot help but be impressed by the old-fashioned”? Is this a projection of our own unwillingness to accept change, and our fond memories of the past? How does this apply to Grace? What is left of the world she knew as a young woman?
  3. How does the concept of being “cowed by frequent assertions as to her “place,” mold who Grace, her mother, and all the servants became? Would the same treatment have the same effect in modern times? Late in the story, an elderly Grace thinks back on how, even after all Hannah’s loss and her own, when Hannah began to shut her out, she couldn’t weep openly as Hannah did. She “could not be given to episodes of such imprudent abandon…” she “was a lady’s maid.” How do moments like this define Grace’s character, and that of her kind?
  4. Grace noted that “it is a peculiar energy that accompanies a shared success,” which is how she tasted champagne for the first time, at Riverton after a dinner party. What are other places where it is frequent to celebrate in a group (cast parties for actors, business dinners after a deal is secured), and where does this unifying camaraderie come from? Can it stretch across boundaries of class, race, gender, personality differences, and even mend fences? How did this affect Hannah and Grace’s relationship?
  5. Likewise joining, even though contrasting, is “the peculiar guilt of tragedy’s survivors.” Where does this guilt come from? Are we reminded of it each time we interact with people who had to survive such tragedy? What are some effective strategies in dealing with this? How could Hannah have treated Robbie differently, or Grace with Albert? Or was it also/ more about the boys’ own reactions to their personal tragedies?
  6. Is it expected of young women of privilege like Hannah to “want to know how it feels to be altered by life”? Is this something she felt because she was adventurous, or young and inexperienced, or sheltered, or were all these factors that led to her inevitable downfall through reckless pursuit. (Think back to the painting she wished to make in Paris as well).
  7. The second kissing gate was also called the forgotten sister. Was Emmeline the forgotten sister in this story? If so, was it really for her own protection that she was neglected and indulged, alternatively? If not, in what ways, other than the obvious, could Grace be called such?
  8. What do Hannah and the "Lady of Shalott" have in common? Is it ironic that she despises the poem despite their future similarities, or is there perhaps another reason in her young mind for this disgust? Or does it simply prove how impulsive and selfish Hannah can be?
  9. Why and how can Grace’s “empathy been used up,’ and how did this affect her ability to be a mother? Why did that not transfer to her grandchild? Why did war give her a sense of purpose, but not a dependent human life-was that a reflection of her own mother?
  10. How is Grace’s grandson like Hannah’s child? What commonalities do they share?
  11. At some point, do all lovers, and even close friends, look at each other as Alfred did to Grace, “with his unseeing eyes and it seemed that he looked for something. An answer to a question he had not asked.”? What was the question in Alfred’s eyes? Robbie’s eyes? Did it ever become something different? Was this question, or anything like it, something later reflected in the way Hannah looked at Grace?
  12. Do “wars make history seem deceptively simple” by providing “clear turning points, easy distinctions: before and after, winner and loser, right and wrong”? Is it ever that simple, or is it, as Grace says, “turning points are sneaky. They pass by unlabeled and unheeded.” Or does it depend on the moment, as some we know are pivotal in the moment, and others blindside us? Which moments were of the first type for Grace, and which of the second? What about for Hannah? Were there some that cannot be clearly labeled, and are lost somewhere in between? How is it in your experience? Why might it be a positive thing to not know about some of the pivotal moments of our lives too early?
  13. Is it true that “only people unhappy in the present seek to know the future?” Couldn’t that be said of anyone, to a certain degree, that they are unhappy? What other reasons are there for seeking to know the future? Why? Is there anything you would want to know beforehand, if you could?
  14. Grace sees photography as a “cruel, ironical art… the dragging of captured moments into the future; moments that should have been allowed to...exist only in memories.” Does she think this way only because of the subject matter and its subsequent memories? How about the picture of her husband-does that have the same effect? What would a picture of her grandson make her feel?
  15. Ursula thinks that David “died a little too early to affect things,” but grace feels that is debatable. what do you think? For whom did David’s death affect their lives, and to what degree?
  16. These two also debate whether or not truth is the most important thing in the telling of a biography or story. Does Grace perhap think truth is relative because she knows the whole true story, (unlike Ursula, who is still searching for it), and is trying to protect people (perhaps including herself) from it? How important is truth in storytelling? Are there stories/circumstances where embellishment or omission are acceptable and even allow for more interesting stories? What makes us so desperate to hear the whole truth, at times?
  17. When did you figure out who Grace’s father was? What was the resolving clue? Why did it take Grace so long?
  18. Grace refers to “precious, perfect moments that I have replayed countless times throughout my life,” including the moment after Alfred proposed to her, and her discovery of her father’s identity. What are some others that might be included on this list? What about for Hannah, or Emmeline? How about for you? Are they better relished as memories than in the moment? Why?
  19. "The Shifting Fog" is the name of one of Robbie’s poems, and an alternate title for the book The House at Riverton. Which title do you prefer and why? The poem is described as one “about history, and mystery, and memory.” To what real-life poets could Robbie perhaps be compared?
  20. What makes people react to death and tragedy so differently? Is it personality, attachment to the person, circumstances, upbringing? Contrast Hannah, Grace, and Emmeline’s reactions to all the deaths they encountered in their lives. What argument can be made here for nature versus nurture, considering the common bond all three women shared?
  21. How is Grace’s work in service, and the orders she must blindly follow (such as not telling Hannah of Emmeline’s death), like that of a the lowest ranked soldiers in the military? Why couldn’t Alfred make it in service then, if both areas share such commonalities?
  22. How did the finale strike you? Did it make you want to re-read the entire book again with your new perspective? Had you suspected something to that degree all along? Is it perfectly thrilling and mysterious the way that the author waited until the last chapter to reveal the culminating tragedy of the book? Did it affect the previous chapters for you and make you want to see them in a new light?

Bonus Question/ Activity:

There are several very similar lines in this story to that of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, “The blood. So much blood. Who’d have imagined there could be so much?” Read this play, or watch the film, and compare the similarities and differences between the stories, and the characters of Robbie and Macbeth, Hannah and Lady Macbeth, and see to what characters Grace (or her mother, Alfred, Emmeline, and Lord Frederick) can be compared in the play.

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