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Milton Place

by Elisabeth de Waal
Persephone book no:

130 131 132

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A Well Full of Leaves
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ISBN 9781910263211

Milton Place (PB. No. 131) is that rare thing for us – a book published from typescript rather than from a previously printed edition. It was untitled, as The Exiles Return had been. It is about a large house in the country in the early 1950s: Anita, a young woman who had lived in Austria throughout the war years and was now exhausted and unhappy, comes to stay with the owner of the house, an elderly man named Mr Barlow. They form a wonderful companionship, much to the dismay of his two daughters. So far so Howards End meets King Lear. But the book is also about the love affair between Anita and Mr Barlow at one end of the spectrum and Anita and his grandson Tony at the other. For some the love affair will be the central theme of Milton Place, for others it will be the survival – or not – of the English country house; and for yet others the crucial theme will be that of England after the war and how it goes forward into the future.

But whichever theme interests the reader most, no one will be able to deny what an excellent book it is: beautifully written and constructed; and anyone interested in English literature will read Milton Place unable to believe that it was turned down by three publishers in the late 1960s. In his Preface to The Exiles Return Edmund de Waal quoted his grandmother accusing herself of lacking the common touch, of merely dealing in essences. ‘It is the quintessence of experiences, not the experiences themselves, perhaps there is no body, the savour but not the fruit, the scent but not the flower.’ But is Henry James reviled for having no body? Is Katherine Mansfield? Is Chekhov? Would any reader of Milton Place want the love affair to be described more explicitly? Certainly not. But, alas, ‘body’ is what publishers were looking for in the 1960s, and this is one of the reasons why Milton Place never found a publisher during Elisabeth’s lifetime.

What Persephone readers will not be able to get over is that despite some rather familiar themes – the decaying country house with rooms shut up and faithful retainers, the newcomer, the two terrible daughters, the echoes of The Go-Between – yet one reads the novel with open-mouthed admiration. Professor Peter Stansky writes in his new Afterword: ‘Elisabeth had an abiding admiration for the English and for their conviction during the war that they would eventually triumph. Milton Place is in many ways a testimony to that indomitable spirit. The two central characters represent all that is best in Elisabeth’s world and her most lyrical writing is about the  grounds and in particular the flowers that are found there, which mean so much to Mr Barlow and to his visitor Anita. What also means a lot is the sense of position, responsibility and moral values that are often embodied in an English country estate – if it is well run. Mr Barlow is a good man and his house is part of that equation.’ Milton Place is important, witty and original. We are very proud to publish it.


A mid 1950s textile design SB469 by Sheila Bownas. © Sheila Bownas Archive Ltd

Picture Caption

Bolham Manor, Frank Shaw, 1886

Read What Readers Say

Amy via Instagram

Beautiful and insightful writing… I’m particularly enjoying de Waal’s description of flowers and nature… And I love the little nuggets of insight scattered through the writing, such as this line: ‘The ghost of a smile on a serious face, she thought, is more entrancing than the wide parted lips of too much laughter.’

Emily Rhodes, ‘Country Life’

‘Milton Place’ is the second of Elisabeth de Waal’s beautifully composed, keenly observed novels to be published posthumously. The author skilfully brings together a nuanced understanding of human relationships, the English class system, contemporary politics, provincial life and the residual trauma of the war into a neatly plotted, deeply absorbing novel.

Dominick Jones

The story in ‘Milton Place’ is a kind of banal tragedy – beautiful woman loses two unsuitable wonderful men because of their ages. The villains (two daughters of the old man) are suitably villainous although they win in the end. For some reason, I glossed over effortlessly that the goodies were too good to be real. I also glossed over a lot of telling not showing. So why did I like it? Essentially the characters, even the villains, are interesting, and my belief in who they are drives the book from step to step. I couldn’t see how the next step could be born from the present step and I felt that the author’s telling me the forces and feelings which were going to lead me inevitably there were so well done that I could believe them whether told or shown. I was so drawn into the location – a mansion in Sussex with a complex garden – that I wanted not to notice that the young man spoke like a grown-up, that the heroine herself was picture perfect. Instead I wanted to know how this perfection would be shattered, who would blurt out the secret the audience knows but no one else.

Categories: Architecture Country Life Family Fathers History House and Garden Love Story Men (books about) Sex

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