Tall Chimneys: A British Family Saga Spanning 100 Years
By Allie Cresswell
Considered a troublesome burden, Evelyn Talbot is banished by her family to their remote country house. Tall Chimneys is hidden in a damp and gloomy hollow. It is outmoded and inconvenient but Evelyn is determined to save it from the fate of so many stately homes at the time – abandonment or demolition.
Occasional echoes of tumult in the wider world reach their sequestered backwater – the strident cries of political extremists, a furore of royal scandal, rumblings of the European war machine. But their isolated spot seems largely untouched. At times life is hard – little more than survival. At times it feels enchanted, almost outside of time itself. The woman and the house shore each other up – until love comes calling, threatening to pull them asunder.
Her desertion will spell its demise, but saving Tall Chimneys could mean sacrificing her hope for happiness, even sacrificing herself.
A century later, a distant relative crosses the globe to find the house of his ancestors. What he finds in the strange depression of the moor could change the course of his life forever.
One woman, one house, one hundred years.
Publication Date: 12th December 2017
The relationship between Evelyn and the revolting estate manager, Sylvester Ratton, provides much of the drama and tension in the story of Tall Chimneys. He is older than her, and much worldlier. He is in a position of power in the house, while she is a newcomer, naïve and there under sufferance. I wanted all these things to come over in their first encounter. At the same time I wanted to show that Evelyn has some spirit – she is not afraid of him. The scenes between Ratton and Evelyn were some of the most enjoyable to write.
An evening with Mr Ratton
So, back to Tall Chimneys I went. I was admitted back into the household, as I had left it, with indifference, given some draughty rooms in the north wing and more or less left to my own devices. I was eighteen years old.
George and Rita were only rarely at Tall Chimneys. To their credit, though, using, I presume, funds from Rita’s wealthy papa, they did initiate a programme of repairs and modernisation to the house; under their benefaction we had improved plumbing and electricity produced by a noisy generator installed in the cellar. We had a telephone but it was very unreliable, the wires strung across the moor and through the trees were very vulnerable. These up-grades, the house, lands and tenant farms were in the hands of George’s agent, Sylvester Ratton, who oversaw their management in George’s absence. Ratton was perhaps ten or twelve years my senior, a man of few personal charms but large ambition; I took an instant dislike to him. He had round, lashless eyes and a small, misshapen blob of a nose. Nothing escaped him, not the least suggestion of an extra bucket of coal in the servants’ hall or the hint of a purloined hare in a ploughman’s pot. He sniffed out and came down hard on any perceived misdeed, reducing housemaids to tears for the smallest misdemeanour and dressing down farm-workers in a voice which carried from the estate office, behind the stables, to the morning room without any tempering of volume or expletive colour. While parsimonious with others, he denied himself nothing, living, while George and his wife were in town, as de facto owner of the house, lording it over the servants and tenant farmers, occupying the second best suite of rooms and wolfing down the choicest of comestibles and the finest wines in the cellar.
The first evening of my residence we dined together, he at the head of the table, me at the foot – a ridiculous and anti-social arrangement which made conversation difficult and made extra work for the servants. It soon became clear that these things were entirely by Mr Ratton’s design. He enjoyed sending the staff scurrying hither and thither, rejecting dishes and then changing his mind about them so they had to be brought in again. He spoke to me as though from a great height as well as a great distance, emphasising my extreme smallness and insignificance.
‘You are lucky,’ he stated, heavily, to me, ‘that your brother and sister in law are prepared to accommodate you here. Many girls in your situation would have been placed elsewhere and expected to make their own way. Perhaps in the end you will think it might have been preferable.’
I told him in a quiet but prideful voice that I felt my good fortune. I would make the best of being allowed to return home.
‘One wonders,’ he mused, swilling wine around a heavily embellished goblet, ‘why they did not accommodate you in town. Perhaps,’ he gave a twisted, almost suggestive grin, ‘they consider the tone there unsuitable. They do entertain some rather… outré guests.’
I made no reply to this observation.
‘The house is sadly depleted since you were last here and George is here but rarely,’ Ratton went on to observe. ‘You will lack for company. You will be lonely. It is hardly suitable. Some might say it is hardly respectable. You ought to have a female companion.’
The idea of the smug, porky individual at the far end of the table posing any kind of threat to my maiden reputation was laughable, but I restrained myself from saying so. It was on the tip of my tongue to suggest that, if he felt the delicacy of my situation so keenly, he ought to move into the agent’s quarters which I knew were provided for him above the estate office. ‘I will use the time to improve myself,’ I said instead. ‘I shall enjoy the outdoors when the weather is fine. When it is not, the library is well-stocked.’
‘Indeed.’ He nodded. ‘No doubt your education has left you lacking in real knowledge. Girls are taught accomplishments, merely. I cannot think your schooling will be much use to you here.’
I felt stung. This accusation was unfair; my schooling had been pretty thorough in arts and humanities although rather coy on the subject of science.
‘While your brother is from home, I run the house very frugally,’ he told me. ‘I told Jones to serve dinner tonight to celebrate your arrival, but after this we will take it separately, in our rooms, unless there is company. You will not find it very convivial.’
I wanted to laugh at Ratton’s idea of a celebratory meal; nothing could have been colder or less hospitable than the atmosphere at table. The prospect of dining alone, even in my rooms, which were dour enough, was a preferable prospect.
‘Of course,’ I agreed. ‘I shall try to incommode your arrangements as little as possible.’
Clearly, having gained his object, Mr Ratton lapsed into silence.
Brilliantly written family saga! I am somewhat at a loss of words! I was pulled in from the very beginning of Evelyn’s story, and what a story it was….pain, loss, betrayal, secrets, romance, and second chances. It spanned 100 years, and I hung on to every word Evelyn spoke.
Evelyn is the youngest child born unexpectedly to her parents. Throughout her life, she was considered a burden to her family. When her parents died, she was sent to live with an older sister. She was happy there, but when she became an adult, she was sent back to her family estate, Tall Chimneys. She is happy to be back there. She did have fond memories there with the family who lived in the gatehouse, and of spending time with Kenneth, the young handy man. However, when she returns, it’s not like she remembers it. The family is gone as well as Kenneth. This begins her journey to save her home at all costs, possibly costing her own happiness and freedom.
Through the decades, many characters pass through the doors of Tall Chimneys. Some of them are good and bring Evelyn much joy and happiness, and others bring her pain. Evelyn is a very relatable character. She isn’t perfect; she’s human. At times, I felt so sorry for her and her isolation, but she made those choices. Those choices are what made me so frustrated with her. One thing is certain. She had was a strong woman. She endured things I can’t imagine, but she endured it and lived quite a long life. It was amazing to see history unfold through the different decades of time.
What amazed me about this book was that the house itself was a main character in this novel. It had its own personality and pulled me into the story as much as Evelyn did. Its story was just as important as hers because the two were so intertwined and connected. Cresswell’s descriptive writing put me right there. I could see John’s artwork and the beauty of the home. I was sitting at the kitchen table at dinner with the American soldiers who were staying there during World War II, being a part of their discussions. I was there in the gatehouse which was such a source of happiness for Evelyn.
As soon as I thought Evelyn’s story had ended, the author gave us another at the end. It brought everything full circle and made perfect sense. WOW! I loved spending the day with Evelyn and hearing her story. My one regret is having to leave Evelyn and Tall Chimneys behind.
Allie Cresswell was born in Stockport, UK and began writing fiction as soon as she could hold a pencil.
She did a BA in English Literature at Birmingham University and an MA at Queen Mary College, London.
She has been a print-buyer, a pub landlady, a book-keeper, run a B & B and a group of boutique holiday cottages. Nowadays Allie writes full time having retired from teaching literature to lifelong learners.
She has two grown-up children, one granddaughter and two grandsons, is married to Tim and lives in Cumbria, NW England.
Tall Chimneys is the sixth of her novels to be published.
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Q & A with Allie Cresswell
- How did you come up with the idea for this book?
Initially I heard a news report about an elderly lady found living in squalor and penury in the servants’ quarters of her once-magnificent stately home, and it got the imaginative juices flowing. Secondly, Downton Abbey came to a conclusion and it left me wanting to know how grand houses like that one survived the years from the 1930s onwards, so I started doing some research and found that many of them didn’t. Lastly it came to me that while large country houses were a dying breed in the years after WW1, the fate of women was on the up, with the vote, matriculation, birth control and a shortage of men all meaning that women could step into roles they had been debarred from before. All these ideas coalesced into Tall Chimneys.
- What was your favourite thing about each character?
I liked Evelyn’s grit and resilience as well as her naivety. She has such fortitude. I admired John’s creativity as well as finding him powerfully attractive! I think Kenneth is my favourite character. Without giving too much away, he stepped out of the shadows in a way I hadn’t expected and his silent presence elbowed its way into the plot with a strength which took me by surprise. I thoroughly enjoyed writing Sylvester Ratton, imbuing him with every mean and vicious characteristic I could come up with.
- Do you have a playlist you listen to when writing?
No. I find any kind of background noise very distracting. I like to write in silence. However, when I take a break I find the classic serials and plays on the BBC iPlayer really enjoyable, and I always stop at 2pm for The Archers!
- Any favourite foods/drinks you like while writing?
Lots and lots of tea, and the odd plateful of hot buttered crumpets which magically appears at my elbow from time to time.
- When did you know you wanted to be a writer?
I must have been about seven. The teacher asked us to write about a family occasion and I chose to write a long, harrowing and entirely fictional account of my grandfather’s funeral. I had never even met him, but I decided he had been a Vicar (which I spelt ‘vice’) and lavished on the details of weeping relatives and the horse-drawn ‘hurst’. I didn’t finish the story during the time allotted and the teacher allowed me to go on with it over the next few days. Mum was confused to be offered condolences when she went to parents’ evening. The teacher had thought she was giving me the opportunity to expiate my grief, whereas in fact (as Mum knew all too well) it was only an excuse to get out of learning my times tables, something I have never achieved. BUT, the thrill of making up stories and writing them down was born and has never left me.
- What are your favourite reads?
I love most nineteenth century classics: The Barsetshire books of Anthony Trollope, Jane Austen, Dickens and the Brontes. Writers like RF Delderfield, Howard Spring and Daphne du Maurier are rarely read these days, but they are brilliant story tellers. I recently read North of Here by Laurel Savile, and was blown away. I hope she writes more.