All their preparations had been in vain. Emerald’s birthday celebrations had begun in confusion and disarray. She cast about for something sensible to say, something that would reassure her mother and friends that an hospitable timetable would be re-established, and was about to suggest the library, and tea, when she halted, arrested in movement like a musical statue.
She was obeying a prompt, an instinct left over, perhaps, from an earlier time; the instinct that stops a mouse in its short-sighted tracks when a cat is watching it from a chair; that makes a dog lying by the fire tremble, and whimper, when there is no one near to see.
And as she stopped, there came, of a sudden, a hard gust of wind behind her, striking her through her dress, forcefully, blowing all thoughts of convention from her mind. The heavy front door was closed, but the chill struck Emerald’s back, finding its way through the jamb and hinges – through the solid wood itself, it seemed, as a cold wave will sometimes catch one as one leaves the sea and knock the breath from the body.
–fromThe Uninvited Guestsby Sadie Jones
It is the last day of April in 1912, and the country estate of Sterne is humming with preparations for an intimate dinner party. Today Emerald Torrington turns 20. The members of the household – and their guests, now en route – have no idea that over the course of this single day and night, all their lives will be turned upside down, for better or for worse.
Charlotte Torrington is Emerald’s mother. A great beauty, she was widowed years ago by her businessman-turned-gentleman-farmer husband. She has recently remarried, to the steady and loving Edward Swift. Despite his affable nature, Edward is fiercely resented by Emerald and her brother Clovis, a dissolute 19 year old whose days are largely spent moping and plotting. The youngest family member is Charlotte’s youngest daughter, Imogen, known as Smudge. A frail, faerie-like wild child, she flits through house and field – and even upon high rooftops – generally unsupervised.
Despite their apparent comfort, the family lives well beyond its means. Edward has been dispatched to Manchester to borrow money from a lender of dubious morals. The family employs a handful of servants to keep the household in minimal working order: there are the maids Pearl and Myrtle, the groom Robert, and Stanley the stable boy. Heading up the servants is the housekeeper, Florence Trieves, a widowed acquaintance from Charlotte’s youth. Like Charlotte, Florence was once a great beauty, but today is a grim crow-like figure garbed in black. She is furiously making preparations for tonight’s menu, to include such delicacies as calf’s head soup and stewed eel.
The family has invited only their most intimate friends to join them for the evening’s celebration. They are expecting Emerald’s dearest friend, the sweet Patience Sutton, who will be accompanied by her brother Ernest, an interning physician. Upon their arrival Emerald discovers that Edward has matured rather pleasingly, no longer the gawky teenager with whom she once rambled the grounds of Sterne during long-ago summers. A late invitation has also been extended to their neighbour, the rich and respectable John Buchanan, who has been perplexing the lovely Emerald of late with his hot-and-cold attentions.
But with the arrival of their guests comes distressing news: A train has derailed, and its survivors – most of whom were travelling third class – are to be received at Sterne. As the owners of the only estate in the vicinity, it is the Torringtons’ duty to accept this responsibility, no matter the disruption to their dinner plans. With Charlotte more preoccupied with naps and arranging her hair, and Clovis of no help at the best of times, Emerald must put aside her confusing feelings about the two men now vying for her attention, and set about preparing for whatever is to come.
But as the motley crowd of survivors is stowed away in the morning room, their cries of hunger and discomfort briefly assuaged by tea, Clovis becomes entranced by their self-appointed leader, the unnerving and mercurial Charlie Traversham-Beechers. Clovis invites this brash fellow to join their dinner party, and Emerald is soon to learn that there can be no adequate preparation for the strangeness of the evening that is to unfold.
Contemporary readers will find much to relish in this brilliant pastiche of the greats of Victorian and Edwardian literature. Deftly composed with liberal sprinklings of acerbic wit, finely rendered pathos, and spine-tingling horror,The Uninvited Guestsis a once-again triumphant work by a new and celebrated author.