(Hodder e-book 2011, originally published 1997)
Although this book was only published a few years ago, it’s largely set in the immediate post-war years, though, like Thornyhold, it’s told as though looking back on the past rather than in the immediate here-and-now. Kate Herrick has come up to Scotland from London to visit her grandmother, who works for the Brandons – a land-owning English family whose home in the north of England was requisitioned during the war – at Strathbeg Lodge. Since the Brandons plan to sell the old house and make it into a hotel, Kate (or Kathy, as her grandmother calls her) is asked to return there to remove her grandmother’s treasures and some of her furniture from the tied cottage where she used to live (and where Kathy was brought up). Kate retells her childhood briefly, noting that she was an illegitimate child, whose mother, Lilias, ran away from home when her daughter was six, and was later killed in a bus crash in Ireland.
Willingly, Kate returns to her childhood home, the Rose Cottage of the title, and finds that things are missing – not least her grandmother’s treasures. She meets old friends, tries to find out who might have stolen the belongings, and makes other discoveries about her family.
It’s a rather sweet, nostalgic tale – there’s no childhood unhappiness for Kate to relive, as Gilly does in Thornyhold – a little mystery and foreboding, but not the intense sense of fear and adventure as there is in Stewart’s earlier novels. It’s rather elegiac in tone, I think, as Kate as an old woman looks back on this turning point in her life. Like several of Stewart’s more recent novels, there’s a real sense of attachment to place – the delight of owning a house and belonging to it and being part of its history – which strengthens the sense of looking back, I think, more than the time in which it’s set (although the immediate post-war setting allows Kate to have loved and married and been widowed before she returns to her past). The change of status which she enjoys at the beginning of the book – from Kathy Welland, illegitimate daughter of a servant, to Kate Herrick, widow of a relatively wealthy man – is only mentioned at the beginning, when it makes awkward her interactions with Lady Brandon and cook-housekeeper Morag: when she returns to the village of Todhall (which appears to be somewhere in County Durham) she seems to revert almost completely to the old Kathy which the people there have known.
It’s beautifully-written, as usual, and Kate is an appealing protagonist: the story is very slight, but Stewart fleshes it out with colour and amusing characters, love of nature, and touches of the supernatural. While I enjoyed it, it’s certainly not the best of Stewart’s novels; there’s a vigour and freshness lacking; I’d recommend starting with one of her earlier novels.