Aaah. I got my Downton DVD fairly early and have now gobbled up the whole of series four (except the Christmas special, which hasn't aired yet and is not on the DVD). But I'll hold off any further extensive Downton blogging for a while - suffice to say that, although the series didn't quite fulfil the promise of the first episode in every way, it's still superlative viewing. I only have to think "If we're playing the Truth game..." to feel in a better mood. Not that all the storylines are mood-enhancing, mind you.
Even when Downton is at its most harrowing, though - and it can be - you have the feeling that gloom and doom won't last forever. As they say in Shakespeare in Love, things will work out well in the end. How? I don't know - it's a mystery.
There's no such consolation in Tyringham Park, Rosemary McLoughlin's historical novel which I finished reading a week or so back. Here, on the contrary, you have the feeling every time things seem to be going tolerably well that a new calamity will soon befall the novel's luckless heroine Charlotte. I felt severely cheated by what I imagined would be a fairly light-hearted romance cum family saga. The problem is, I'm not sure that I had any legitimate cause.
True, the cover sports a pensive woman in period costume (early 20th century) standing in front of a grand landed estate. Who wouldn't think "romantic family saga"? On the other hand, it also displays the puff quote "The Thorn Birds with a dash of Du Maurier's Rebecca" - a reminder that not every sweeping tale necessarily has to be upbeat. Du Maurier does come to mind when you're reading Tyringham Park: there's romance and melodrama, all right, but with a good dose of melancholy thrown in, and the non-pluckiness of the heroine recalls the insecure narrator of Rebecca. And yet, and yet... Du Maurier's books have covers showing dark, wind-swept landscapes, with maybe the odd ominous, pensive-woman-free building peeping through. They don't feel like false marketing in the same way.
What bugs me the most, I think, is the enjoyably easy style of the Tyringham Park. It's much more well-written than a lot of offerings in the same genre - and then it spoils it all by being so depressing. At least, if it had been turgid, I would have had the sense to stop reading it in time. As it was, I followed the gloomy Charlotte - and she has a great deal to be gloomy about - from one sorrowful scenario to the next. I confess I haven't read the children's books series A Series of Unfortunate Events, but the title easily came to find when reading about Charlotte's lives and loves. People who think that sad and horrible events are "truer to life" than their opposites should read this book and take its lesson to heart: the disasters that befall Charlotte ar as unlikely and far-fetched as the most sugary ending to the most romantic fairy-tale (if not more, in the case of her marriage and how it comes about). In a life containing far too few ladders and far too many snakes, Charlotte looks like ending up just a touch higher up on the board than when she started, and to be fair, she has her "I'm Mrs de Winter now" moment. But then, she droops again. The book is set in Ireland, and it called to mind to the postcard where all the world's great religions are summed up by variations on the phrase "Shit happens". The summing-up for Catholicism is: "Shit happens because you deserve it". You have a sense that Charlotte would agree.
I do wonder what readership the novel is meant for. Don't fans of depressing stories like them to be set in, say, a grim council house block at the edge of an industrial town in the Eighties? However, no genre should be a prison, and if the combination of landed-estate goings-on, the secrets of an upper-crust interwar Anglo-Irish family and abject misery seems appealing, by all means give Tyringham Park a go. It's pacy and the prose is easily digestible. Just don't expect it to end with a sun-dappled cricket match.