x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 20 July 2017

The Novel in the Viola: Wartime romance, unconventionally told

Natasha Solomons's Europe is on the eve of war and Elise Landau, an Austrian socialite, is sent to England as a housemaid.

The Novel in the Viola Natasha Solomons Sceptre
The Novel in the Viola Natasha Solomons Sceptre

Europe on the eve of war and Elise Landau, an Austrian socialite, is sent to England to escape the creeping danger of Adolf Hitler's visions for a new world order. Landau's port in the storm is the country pile of Tyneford House and a new life as a domestic servant, although her pampered upbringing leaves her ill-prepared and ill-suited to such a dramatic change in her circumstances.

Soon though she meets and falls for Kit, the heir to the Tyneford estate, setting up a classic upstairs-downstairs affair. To her credit, Solomons's cleverly crafted narrative elevates The Novel in the Viola far above a routine love story between the lord of the manor and the lowly housemaid.

Instead, the sense that life will never be the same again - for Elise, for Europe - simmers away ever closer to the surface. In real life, the village of Tyneham and its country estate (on which Tyneford is based) was requisitioned by the British military in the 1940s and used as an elaborate shooting arcade for soldiers seeking targets to practice on. It has remained an abandoned folly of war ever since.