Tall Chimneys: A British Family Saga Spanning 100 Years
Tall Chimneys is a memoir written and narrated by Evelyn Talbot. It begins in 1910 with Evelyn’s return to Tall Chimneys where she discovers her childhood friends have been dismissed and the estate manager, Ratton is in charge. Seeking to avoid his unwelcome advances, Evelyn escapes to the gatehouse where she meets John Cressing, an artist working on commissions from her older brother. Thus begins the great love affair of Evelyn’s life. When the Wall Street crash of 1929 occurs, Tall Chimneys passes to Evelyn’s brother Colin, a cold but ambitious man who is deeply involved with the British Fascists. Colin gives her the choice to stay at Tall Chimneys or to leave and she opts to stay where she feels safe and at home.
During the pre-war and early war years, she discovers a bit of independence and begins to socialize in the village. Once the war begins in earnest, Tall Chimneys becomes quarters for American airmen and Evelyn falls in love with one of them. Despite his pleas, she opts to remain where she is and wait for John.
After the war Evelyn has another chance to change her life, but again, she remains at Tall Chimneys. When she learns that the house and its contents have been sold to the hated Ratton, Evelyn must decide whether to marry him for security or to retain the little independence she has won.
Theme of the Book
There is a quote from Evelyn that sums up the heart of this novel: “I asked myself if Tall Chimneys was my pride or my prison, and I did not know the answer.” This is a novel of fear and insecurity, of the results of a childhood of neglect. Yet there is also love and happiness in the relationships of Evelyn with John, with her American pilot, and with her daughter.
What I Liked About the Story
There is a deep relationship between the narrator, Evelyn Talbot, and the house, Tall Chimneys. Evelyn’s deep insecurities are mirrored by the crumbling state of the house. She limits herself to only the housekeeper’s rooms and the kitchen just as she limits herself to only her immediate surroundings, fearing to venture farther or to experience the unknown. Evelyn is lonely and neglected by her family just as the house is isolated and left to fall apart. It is only in the small gatehouse that Evelyn finds happiness – the gatehouse where she sheltered as a young girl and where she met John Cressing, the man who awakens joy and passion in her heart.
The language in this book is beautiful. Look at one short paragraph from the prologue:
There is a kinship between Tall Chimneys and me; we are twin souls. I have placed my hands on its masonry in the midst of a storm and the tremors in its architecture have shaken my own foundations. I have felt the glow of warmth ooze from its ancient stones and seep like sustaining honey into my bones. I have burrowed into the darkest recess of its shelter and teetered perilously on its highest parapet without fear that it would let me fall. I have known love here, and abject sorrow, happiness, and dreadful despair. Tall Chimneys has soaked up my life, and poured out its own, leaving us both derelict.
In one short paragraph, Ms. Cresswell established the tone of the entire novel. There is melancholy, loneliness, neglect and yet passion and love.
Ms. Cresswell also weaves the history of England from 1910 to 1950 told through the life of Evelyn. The landed class is disappearing; the war is bringing home tragedy and fear; the Wall Street crash destroys families, and the British Fascists cause disruption.
What I Didn’t Like About the Story
Evelyn is a character who evokes both sympathy and frustration. The reader will be tempted to agree with Evelyn’s sister, Amelia, who tells Evelyn to leave Tall Chimneys and begin to live. But even though Evelyn can be annoying with her insecurities, she remains a sympathetic character.
Tall Chimneys is a book to be read and savored. It is not to be rushed through, but appreciated for its language, its images, and its characters. It is a beautiful book. Ms. Cresswell’s facility with the English language is to be admired. I’d strongly suggest that all new authors read her work to see what a true understanding of language means.