For years, Howard Spring was intrigued by the idea of writing a novel about why the peaceful world promised by the Crystal Palace in 1851 was never realized. Spring takes his answer from a line in a music hall song “You could see the Crystal Palace if it wasn’t for the houses in between.”
Sarah Rainborough Undridge, born in 1848, was three when her parents took her to the opening of the Crystal Palace. Before long, Sarah’s parents were divorced, her mother remarried to Baron Burnage, whose first wife has gone off with another man.
Sarah spends most of her childhood and youth in the company of a governess, Maggie Whales, who becomes a successful novelist (published by Charles Dickens) but remains a sensible and loving friend to Sarah for decades.
Sarah is not beautiful, brilliant, or talented. Through Maggie’s influence she becomes perceptive, thoughtful and reflective. As she grows older, Sarah begins writing the story of her life. The Houses In Between, including its title, is presented as her fictional memoir, finished shortly before her death on New Year’s Day 1948.
Spring is a fine writer. He conveys personalities and atmosphere so vividly they appear in the mind’s eye in streaming video. Yet the book, for all its richness of character and history, feels flat, which is Spring’s point: Virtue is lovely and fragile; reality is ugly and durable.The Houses in Between Howard Spring Harper, 1951 550 pages 1952 Bestseller #10 My grade: A-