The Hardie Inheritance by Anne Melville

The Hardie Inheritance, first published in 1990 and recently reissued, is the last in a trilogy of novels following a family of English wine merchants from the late nineteenth to mid-twentieth century. The first two books are The House of Hardie and The Daughter of Hardie, but if you haven’t read them it shouldn’t be a problem as the author provides enough of the backstory for new readers to be able to pick up the threads, without completely spoiling the plots of the other two books.

While the previous novel covered the period of World War I and its aftermath, The Hardie Inheritance takes us forward to 1932. There are now only three Hardies – Grace, Philip and their mother, Lucy – still living at Greystones, the family estate in Oxfordshire, and they have settled into a quiet, uneventful life together. Grace, now in her late thirties and expecting to remain a spinster, keeps herself busy with her sculpting, while her brother Philip, who returned from the war suffering from shell shock and weak lungs, fills his days looking after the gardens. Then, one sunny day in July, four unexpected visitors arrive at Greystones and set Grace’s life on a different course.

First, there’s Ellis Faraday and his six-year-old daughter, Trish. Ellis, a photographer, is the son of the architect who designed Greystones and he is keen to take pictures of the interior. At first, Grace is reluctant, aware that due to lack of money she has not been able to maintain the building properly, but she agrees to let him see the house and soon he and Trish have become part of her life – although not quite in the way you might expect. Also that same day, they are visited by Rupert, a cousin who has just discovered his connection with the Hardie branch of the family. And finally, Andy Frith, the gardener’s son who had once been Grace’s beloved childhood friend, returns from France to see his dying father.

The novel follows the stories of all of these people and more, but with a particular focus on Grace as she comes to terms with the changes in her household and faces some important decisions to secure the future of Greystones, and on Trish as she grows into a woman and begins her own search for happiness. Meanwhile, the outbreak of World War II poses new challenges for the Hardies and their friends. The whole novel takes place within a domestic setting and we don’t actually see any of the fighting, but we do see the impact it has on the lives of those left at home. One of my favourite storylines involves Trish being sent to Oxford to collect a family of evacuees from London who, it seems, would rather not be evacuated at all. And although there would obviously have been many people who suffered much more greatly, I still had sympathy for Rupert whose beautiful home, Castlemere, is requisitioned for use as a boarding school!

I think The Hardie Inheritance is my favourite of the three books in the trilogy. There were a lot of new characters introduced early in the book, but I had no problem keeping track of them all and I became very fond of some of them, particularly Trish. Some parts of the book were quite predictable, but others took me by surprise, particularly the ending which I hadn’t expected but which, when I thought about it, was the perfect way to bring the saga of Greystones to a close.

Anne Melville (a pseudonym of Margaret Potter) was a very prolific author who wrote in several different genres using different names – I have read her mystery novel, Murder to Music, which was published under the name Margaret Newman, but most of her other books are out of print so I hope more of them will eventually be made available again.

Book 20/50 read for the 2021 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge.

The Daughter of Hardie by Anne Melville

The Daughter of Hardie, originally published in 1988 as Grace Hardie, is the second in Anne Melville’s trilogy of novels following the story of a family of English wine merchants throughout the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. I think this book does stand alone quite well as it concentrates mainly on the younger generation of the Hardie family, but I would still recommend starting with the first one, The House of Hardie, if you can.

This second novel opens in 1898 with Grace Hardie growing up at Greystones, the family estate in the countryside near Oxford, where they have their wine shop. As the only girl in a family of boys and considered an invalid due to her severe asthma attacks, Grace is struggling to find her place in the world but she finds happiness in exploring the grounds of Greystones and playing with her beloved cat, Pepper. Then, one day, a tragic accident destroys Grace’s happiness and things are never quite the same again. Meanwhile, 1914 is approaching and with it the beginning of the First World War. With five brothers, four of whom are old enough to fight, there could be more tragedy ahead for Grace and her family…

I enjoyed the first Hardie novel, but I thought this one was even better. I wasn’t sure about it at first – I found the scenes describing the accident I alluded to earlier quite harrowing and I almost stopped reading at that point, but I’m pleased I didn’t because as the consequences of that incident and its impact on Grace and her brothers became clearer I started to understand why it was depicted in that way. By the time war broke out halfway through the novel I had been fully drawn into the story and was genuinely worried for the characters as they either went off to fight or were left behind to wait for news of their loved ones.

Anne Melville manages to cover almost every aspect of the war you could think of – men sent home from the front wounded, men left suffering from shellshock, gas attacks and zeppelin raids, conscription and desertion, women stepping into roles vacated by men, and the difficulties of keeping a large estate running during and after the war. This could easily have felt overwhelming, but it doesn’t…all of these storylines arise naturally from the stories of the various characters and the types of people they are.

But this is not just a book about war. One of the main themes of the first novel, women’s education, was at the forefront of this one too. Midge Hardie, my favourite of the ‘first generation’ characters, is now a school headmistress – a job she loves, even though she had been forced to make an unfair choice between marriage and a teaching career, as married headmistresses are considered ‘unacceptable’. Grace herself is not as certain as Midge about what she wants to do and it was interesting to follow her internal struggles over whether to marry and have children or to pursue a more independent way of life.

There was so much to enjoy in this book that I really don’t think the two big plot twists that come towards the end of the book were at all necessary. One in particular felt unbelievable and just a way of trying to tie up loose ends that didn’t need to be tied. That was a shame because otherwise I had loved the book, after that uncertain start. Despite those reservations, though, I will definitely be reading the final part of the trilogy, The Hardie Inheritance, and will look forward to finding out how the story ends.

Thanks to Agora Books for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

The House of Hardie by Anne Melville

The House of Hardie is the first in a trilogy published between 1987 and 1990 and telling the story of several generations of the Hardie family. In this novel, set towards the end of the Victorian era, we meet Gordon Hardie who, ever since running away to sea as a boy, has dreamed of becoming a famous explorer and discovering new lands. Gordon has been back in England for several years, working in the family wine business in Oxford, but has informed his father that this won’t be a permanent arrangement as he intends to set off soon on a voyage to China in search of a rare and beautiful flower.

Meanwhile, Gordon’s younger sister Midge is preparing to begin an exciting new adventure of her own. She has been offered a place at Oxford University, with permission to attend tutorials and lectures – as long as she is chaperoned by an older woman at all times and sits separately from the male students. Midge is determined to make the most of the opportunity she has been given, but she finds an immediate distraction in Archie Yates, a young man who couldn’t be more different from herself. As the grandson of a marquess and with no need to worry about his future, Archie has little interest in studying and plans to spend his time at Oxford having fun. While Midge embarks on a romance with Archie, her brother Gordon also falls in love – with Archie’s sister, Lucy Yates. Because of her class, Lucy’s life has so far been much more conventional and constrained than Midge’s, but she longs to get away from her grandfather’s country estate and experience more of what the world has to offer.

The two storylines – one following Midge’s relationship with Archie and the other Gordon’s with Lucy – move forward in parallel with each other, a few chapters at a time spent on each one. I enjoyed getting to know three of the characters, at least; I didn’t like Archie at all and couldn’t understand what an intelligent woman like Midge saw in him! The book was much more than a simple romance, though, with lots of interesting issues covered through the stories of the main characters. First, there was women’s education and how progress in that area was slowly being made, while still being very far away from equality with men. We are shown how frustrating it must have been for Midge to be allowed to study at Oxford and take examinations like the men, yet not to be awarded the equivalent degree just because she is a woman. It’s even more ridiculous that she is forced to use separate entrances to the university buildings, that she has to bring a female companion with her to tutorials and that she could be sent home in disgrace if she is caught alone with a male student, however innocent the circumstances.

Class differences are also explored. The Yates family are upper class people with titles and estates, whereas the Hardies are wine merchants with a background in trade. It doesn’t matter that the Hardies still have a comfortable lifestyle and a nice home and that they are decent, hardworking people; because of the class system, the marquess will never consider them to be good enough for his grandchildren. Gordon and Lucy believe that love should be able to transcend these boundaries, but for Midge and Archie their difference in status will prove much more challenging.

Travel and exploration form another important part of the plot. Most of the final section of the book is set in China where Gordon is hunting for the lily he hopes will make his name as an explorer and botanist. This is fascinating and reads almost like a Victorian travel memoir, describing the scenery, the culture and the people our characters meet along the way. However, the feel of the novel changes at this point with the decision to leave Oxford – and Midge and Archie’s storyline – behind. The balance and variety of the earlier chapters are lost and I finished the book feeling a bit less enthusiastic about it than I had at first. I did enjoy The House of Hardie, though, and I have a copy of the second book in the series ready to start soon.

Thanks to Agora Books for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.