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The Happy Tree

by Rosalind Murray
Persephone book no:

107 108 109

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A Well Full of Leaves
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ISBN 9781903155981

This 1926 novel begins with the death of a young man in the First World War, flashes back to his happy childhood shared with the young woman who is the narrator, and then describes how the war – inevitably – took them unawares, destroyed their happiness and has left her, the young woman, emotionally maimed. In one sense it does not sound very entertaining. But the quality of the writing is extraordinary and it tells the reader as much about the after-shock of the war as, say, Vera Brittain's Testament of Youth.

Unlike Wilfred and Eileen, which focuses on the years 1913–15 and does not show the aftermath, The Happy Tree is focused on what happens when the war has ended. This is why quoting the closing lines of the book, here, does not ‘give the plot away’: And this is all that has happened. It does not seem very much. It does not seem worth writing about. I was happy when I was a child, and I married the wrong person, and some one I loved dearly was killed in the war . . . that is all. And all those things must be true of thousands of people. A contemporary reviewer wrote about The Happy Tree, having quoted these lines: ‘Well, they are “true of thousands of people”, but most women of forty cannot sit down and see how life has taken them and shaped their plans into others and ignored their hopes for beautiful things that never happen. Most women, too, the thousands who might have written this story, cannot take disappointment and ugly houses and imperfect husbands and change such elements of life into a spiritual experience that is beautiful, and something that is not a sordid string of complaints. Clarity and proportion, rare words to apply to the new fiction. The Happy Tree stands almost alone.’

As Charlotte Mitchell writes in her new Persephone Preface: the novel ‘tells the story of Helen Woodruffe, who grows up partly in her grandmother’s London house in Campden Hill Square and partly with some cousins, the Laurier family, who live on a country estate called Yearsly. There, sometimes under a special “Happy Tree”, she passes an idyllic childhood with Guy and Hugo Laurier. Helen is more or less in love with Hugo, but since he doesn’t seem to want her she drifts into marriage with one of his Oxford contemporaries, Walter Sebright, who comes from a hard-working middle-class family not in sympathy with the Lauriers or with the gentry’s attitude to life. When the First World War comes Walter is judged medically unfit to fight, but Guy and Hugo go to war; only Guy returns.’

People occasionally ask how we find our books and we are often stumped. But in this case there was a specific recommendation: we discovered Rosalind Murray’s novel because a Persephone reader was intrigued by a mention of her in Virginia Woolf ’s Diary and started looking for her books. Then we read that EM Forster called her first novel The Leading Note (1910) one of the ‘two best novels I have come across in the past year’ (the other was Felix Wedgwood’s Shadow of a Titan).

Sadly, the only place we could discover anything about Rosalind Murray (1890–1967) was in William McNeill’s biography of her husband. Here it transpired that she was the daughter of the classical scholar Gilbert Murray and of Lady Mary Howard and was only in her early ’20s when her first three novels were published; by the time The Happy Tree came out she was married to the historian Arnold Toynbee and was the mother of three small boys. It is a pity that her husband’s biographer is, in Charlotte Mitchell’s words, ‘markedly unsympathetic to Rosalind, accusing her among other things of being snobbish, imperious, badly-dressed and responsible for her husband’s not fighting in the war. The Happy Tree, her own analysis of her chances and her choices, offers the possibility of a more nuanced view, and records the impact of the war on a generation of women torn between an old world which had been destroyed and a new world whose rules they had not yet learned.’

As LP Hartley wrote about The Happy Tree when it first came out, ‘One cannot help liking the book: one cannot help admiring its phenomenal freedom from vulgarity, its disdain of worldly lures, its fastidious avoidance of second-rate consolations. It is marked by dignity and distinction and the indescribable grace of a rare spirit.’

For more on The Happy Tree, have a look at the Persephone Perspective.


The endpaper fabric is a 1926 printed woollen plush by TF Firth & Sons

Picture Caption

Maroon and Gold by Ruth Simpson (1889-1964)

Read What Readers Say

Beyond Eden Rock (blogger)

Only the very hardest of hearts could fail to be moved by this beautifully wrought and utterly poignant account of a life damaged by war and by circumstance. ‘The Happy Tree’ is the story of Helen, who looks back at her earlier life when she is in her forties. Her childhood was, in many ways, idyllic. She and her cousins’ life in the country was happy and secure; they had the freedom to roam through gardens, meadows and woods; and there was one particular tree that they always returned to, naming it The Happy Tree. She accepts a proposal from Walter, a serious- minded academic, and when war broke out had to watch her cousins and friends go off to fight while Walter stayed at home, because he was medically unfit, and carried out work that was important to the war effort. She struggled with childcare and with housework, with no help, because even had finances allowed, there were no domestic servants to be had. Totally unequipped for the life she had to live, she struggled with the consequences of the wrong decisions she had made, and as news of casualties and deaths arrived she grieved for the people she had loved and for the world that she had loved and that she knew could never be the same again. The writing in this book is so honest and so insightful that Helen’s feelings and experiences were palpable, and though there were times when I felt so sad for her that it was difficult to read, I couldn’t look away. Her story speaks profoundly for the generation of women who lived through the Great War, and it does more besides. It made me think how our family situation can affect us for the whole of our lives. It made me realise that no matter what our circumstances, our lives can be thrown off course by things that we can’t control, leaving hopes and dreams shattered, and leaving lives adrift. It made me realise that it is so important to speak and communicate honestly. All this in the story of one life, told in a voice that always rings true.

Book Snob (blogger)

‘The Happy Tree’ is an evocative, sensitively written and powerfully moving novel that was a pure pleasure to read. What made me find this book so touching is because really it isn’t about war at all, but more the way in which life often takes us in directions we didn’t plan for, leaving us cast adrift from the vision of the future we believed we would have. It’s not exactly an uplifting read, but a thought-provoking, searingly honest portrayal of a woman’s life.

Categories: Childhood Family House and Garden WWI

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