This book feels like an epic. A familial version of The lliad, the very first play that Cristabel puts on in the family’s theatre by the beach, formed from the jawbones of a whale. It washed up on the beach and was claimed for the Seagraves by Cristabel who is the orphan cousin of the family. Cristabel doesn’t really fit anywhere. She loves adventure, activity, and endeavours, climbing, running and conquering the Seagrave estate rather than being the lady her stepmother would expect, if she could be bothered. The Seagrave children are an odd bunch, brought up by staff and each other, while their parents stay in bed late, are never without houseguests and like to drink as early as it is socially acceptable to do so. This is the story of the heir and the spare. Jasper Seagrave brings his new wife home to the Chilcombe Estate and Rosalind is thrown into being mistress of the house and stepmother to his daughter Cristabel. There are definite vibes of Rebecca in this beginning, with a much younger wife slightly overawed by her new home and struggling to find her place. The ghostly presence in this case being Cristabel, creeping round corridors and the attic, having ‘boy’s own’ adventures with imaginary friends. Rosalind is happy to have bagged an aristocratic husband, considering they’re in very short supply since the war. That is until the ‘spare’ arrives. Willoughby is everything his elder brother isn’t, a dashing war hero fascinated by speed whether it’s a new car or learning to fly. There’s an immediate attraction, deepening when Rosalind is on bed rest in the last stages of pregnancy and Willoughby keeps her company. Is the Chilcombe estate about to lapse into scandal and what will become of Cristabel?
Joanne Quinn’s incredible debut begins at the end of WW1 and takes us all the way through WW2. The attention to detail is incredible and I felt completely immersed in this family’s history and the times they’re living in. This period saw huge changes for the aristocracy, often forced by the loss of two generations and bankruptcy due to death duties. Estates were sold off or had their use changed in order for the family to survive. The class boundaries became blurred as servants and masters fought together and unexpected bonds were created. Women had grown used to different roles, possibly nursing or working in factories or shops, and not all wanted to go back to a domestic role. There were also less men, so the marriage market changed and many society women, like Rosalind, had to be open to marrying men they might have previously overlooked. The author reinforces this sense of change by echoing it in the setting. When Rosalind first arrives at Chilcombe she is disappointed in the old fashioned country decor, all wood panelling and animal heads. She gradually brings the house into the 1920s with glamorous furniture and wallpaper, perhaps more suited to a London house than the country estate. The animals are banished to the attic, including a stuffed baby elephant on wheels intended as a gift to Cristabel from her mother. In fact Cristabel herself is treated rather like an unwanted piece of decor, stuffed into the attic with only the maid Maudie for company, her tomboyish ways out of step with her elegant and ethereal stepmother. As war looms again, the estate changes accordingly, with its garden turned over to vegetables and the people left behind pulling together as a team whether they are a Seagrave or the servants. They find themselves communing together in the kitchen, with all the elegant furniture sitting around like a piece of jewellery that’s too dressy for everyday wear.
The Seagrave children are the main focus of the novel, Cristabel, Flossie and Digby, each one a cousin or half-sibling they cleave together tightly due to parental neglect. Flossie is the child of Jasper Seagrave and Rosalind and I did find my heart warming to her. Nicknamed ‘The Veg’ thanks to an unfortunate resemblance to a vegetable when she was a baby, I sensed Flossie’s vulnerability. Her mother is beautiful and willowy, a perfect shape for her time, rather like an Art Deco statuette, but Flossie hasn’t inherited that elegance or poise. She’s rather like her father Jasper, a little bit awkward and not very good at asserting herself. WW2 tests Flossie’s metal and she responds with duty, grit and determination. It’s as if by pulling on her old clothes, mucking in with the servants and creating her garden at the whalebones she finds herself and becomes okay with who she is. Her friendship she cultivates with the German prisoner of war is so touchingly beautiful and fleeting. She’s a good person who can see the best traits in someone and bring them out. With both siblings away on special operations, it’s Flossie who has to find a way of keeping Chilcombe and run the estate. Digby, the son of Rosalind and Willoughby Seagrave, has the advantages of being the son and heir, but also seems like the one Seagrave who was wanted. Cristabel, belonging to Jasper and his first wife, is almost invisible. The chapter where her parents meet is unbelievably touching and I found myself bereft for Cristabel, because she would never know how much she was loved and wanted. Flossie is perhaps a reminder of those months when Rosalind was Jasper’s wife, something she seems to view with distaste. Digby could have been resented by his siblings, but both girls adore him. His love for acting shines through from being a little boy, when the theatre has a profound effect on him. So much so, that he’s still on the stage years later. To some extent, Cristabel is his parent and he looks up to her, happy to follow on in whatever escapade she has planned next.
It is Cristabel who is the hero of this book, from the child who has to crawl in bed with one of the maids for comfort and affection, to a special operative in occupied France, she is a survivor. Full of ideas, her determination to claim the beached whale is almost comical, couched in the very male language of expedition and discovery. Once only the bones are left, it takes someone equally creative and energetic to help establish the Whalebone Theatre. A visiting artist, scandalously living in the cottage with his wife and identical twin lovers, imagines walking through the creatures jawbone to reach the theatre (a space repurposed for Flossie’s vegetable garden during WW2). They create a script from Homer’s work and utilising Rosalind’s skills and interest in design, make a seating area and light the way to a stage that has the sea as a backdrop. Their plays succeed in bringing everyone together in the endeavour, each with a part to play whether it’s on stage, setting up, or making flyers for the village. These happy parts of her childhood take on such a nostalgic element, especially years later when she’s crouched in a ditch in occupied France trying to survive. There’s a sense in which the whole ensemble and even the villagers bring up this little girl and I loved the knowing way people would assume some daring escapade was the work of Miss Cristabel. I felt most sorry for her when we learn that her story could have been so different. Jasper is knocked off his feet by this woman who wants to talk to him at the hunt and appears immune to the charms of his notorious brother. The paragraph where Jasper recalls how in tune they both were and how brilliant and capable she was of running the estate with him. I can see a great deal of her mother in Cristabel and I was moved by the joy they felt in finding out they were going to be parents. The stuffed baby elephant they install with wheels for their baby shows that they imagine her like a little Maharaja, riding her elephant around the house.
Cristabel’s war years are incredibly intrepid and there are scenes where I was scared for her. The languid inter-war years seem decadent by comparison with these more sparse and disjointed episodes showing all three Seagraves in different parts of the world. I thought the pace really picked up as we followed Cristabel on her missions, parachuting into occupied France as a messenger, often with German soldiers a hair’s breadth away from discovering her. One scene with a German officer is so real I felt sick for her! She proves that her ‘adventures’ were not just an affectation. She is willing to put herself on the line, proving her aptitude for work as a operative, but also such incredible bravery. The final days of Nazi rule in Paris are tense, nail-bitingly so, but I didn’t fear for her. I had a sense Cristabel would survive no matter what. I thought this was an incredible depiction of life through the war, whether from Flossie’s more domestic side including service as a land girl to Cristabel and Digby’s seemingly more dashing exploits. His sister’s determination to find Digby showed that these children loved and cared for each other so deeply, probably because they had been left to their own devices. For Cristabel, it is servant Maudie who shows her what a mother’s love should look like and she in turn, mothers her little brother and sister. The author shows what a toll both wars took on people and the rapid changes they forced on society. I won’t reveal whether any of our characters survive, but Cristabel remembers a saying, that war can bring out the best in people. There are those who shine through difficult days and in their own ways I think the Seagrave children all stepped up to the mark. Most importantly the loving bond they had as children, stood firm and could not be broken.
Published 9th June 2022 by Fig Tree (Penguin)
Meet The Author
Joanna Quinn was born in London and grew up in Dorset, in the South West of England, where her “brilliant, beguiling” debut novel The Whalebone Theatre is set.
Joanna has worked in journalism and the charity sector. She is also a short story writer, published by The White Review and Comma Press among others. She teaches creative writing and lives in a village near the sea in Dorset.