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Our Mother's House

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Pan, London, 1966
(price: 5/-; 272 pages)

(first published by Martin Secker & Warburg, 1963)

dedication: to Elise, for her beauty, her patience, and her constant hot coffee

The blurb on the back:

'Though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be white as snow.'
When their Mother died at 5.58 one spring evening, her seven children buried her in the garden.
It was Elsa's idea, and she was thirteen and the eldest.
Lonely and frightened, faced with separation and the horrors of an unknown orphanage, they pretended to the outside world that she was ill, and could not be seen...
Scene by scene, nostalgic, comic, pathetic, terrible and tragic, the children live their constricted lives, moving from crisis to crisis.

'a minor miracle' - Time
'ingenious in plot and beautiful in the telling' -
Books and Bookmen
'a real spine-chiller' -
Evening News

opening lines:
Mother died at five fifty-eight. Her last act was to reach out for the gold fob watch that lay on the bedside table.

The idea of an adult-less society of children had been popularized by William Golding's Lord of the Flies, and had been developed by William Butler's The Butterfly Revolution shortly before this entry into the stakes.

What Our Mother's House brings to the party is a sense of Gothic claustrophobia. The seven children, ranging in age from four to thirteen, live in a large house with their mother. When she dies - in the first sentence - they bury her in the garden and then resume normal life, going to school, cashing her annuity cheques and taking care of themselves. Isolated in the house, they see themselves as a beleaguered community: adults exist as an external threat to be headed off and challenged whenever they attempt to intrude into the closed world the children have created. Hanging over everything is the fear that if anyone finds out, the children will be split up and sent to ill-defined institutions known as orphanages.

But gradually a split begins to open between the Mother-loyalists, who claim direct communication with the dead woman, and a dissident faction of pragmatists. When the children gather daily in the shrine they've built over the grave, it's the former who call all the shots, but it's the latter who have the responsibility of keeping the thing going on a practical level. And of course, you know that a happy ending simply isn't on the cards.

It's a very fine piece of work, drenched in paranoia and impending catastrophe, a neglected classic of British horror.

This was subsequently filmed by Jack Clayton, though to my regret I haven't seen it: by rights it should be marvellous, given how much Clayton brought to The Innocents, his re-work of the much-inferior The Turn of the Screw. The film starred Dirk Bogarde as the wandering father and featured Pamela Franklin, Louis Sheldon Williams, Sarah Nicholls, John Gugolka, Mark Lester and Gustav Henry as the children (one got lost in the transition to the screen).

Dirk Bogarde and Pamela Franklin


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