The Happy Tree

Last spring, when the blossom was out, I went to New College, and looked at the cherry tree that we used to see from Hugo’s window. I suppose it is just the same now as it always was, but I do not feel the same about it now…three generations of young men have been in those rooms since we came here.

And now it is my birthday, and I am forty; and Hugo, if he were alive, would be forty-two. That seems impossible; I cannot think of Hugo as not young.

The Happy Tree by Rosalind Murray is close in some respects to Vera Britain’s Testament of Youth – an Oxford chapter, a close family, a lost love in the war – and is just as moving, but is personal rather than political. It’s hard to believe it’s not better known.

Helen is already married and a mother by the time war comes and her beloved cousins go to fight, and the novel is as much about a marriage where two people make each other quietly unhappy, as it is about an idyllic lost childhood. The final sentences are devastating in their quietness, and the placing of the ordinary, plain words.

And that is all that has happened. It does not seem very much. It does not seem worth writing about. I was happy when I was a child, and I married the wrong person, and someone I loved dearly was killed in the war…that is all. And all those things must be true of thousands of people.

The book’s simplicity of style is what makes it hard to tell whether the descriptions of evenings by the fire and playing in Yearsley wood, the pre-war Oxford and London years, or Helen’s terror at the “mad” crowds on Armistice Day are the most vivid. In each section it’s the smallest details that stand out, the intense visual memory of blue curtains in a grey room, a friend trying not to cry by the Embankment, or autumn leaves and cherry blossom. It’s why the intensely tactile fabric chosen by Persephone works so well, representing not just the poppies of Flanders Field but also Helen’s almost psychedelic dream state.

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(Endpapers of the Persephone edition.)

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