The Houses in Between explores failed peace promises

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-
© 2012 Linda Gorton Aragoni

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Linda Aragoni

I'm passionate about helping people learn through the medium of nonfiction writing. Although I occasionally have an idea of my own, I mostly build education tools by recycling and repurposing other folks' ideas.

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