Sadie Jones has earned literary acclaim with her two previous novels, both historical tales featuring characters who are a bit out of step with the rest of the world. In her third novel, she’s taking on the traditional English country house story with a tale set, fashionably, during Downton Abbey times
It’s 1912 and a remote, rundown country manor in northern England is the setting for The Uninvited Guests.Charlotte Torrington- Swift, the lady of the house is nearing the age of 50, and is still a beauty although not a particularly nice person; her second husband Edward (the children’s stepfather) loves her so much he will do just about anything for her. The two eldest children, Emerald and Clovis, are also not particularly likeable but can be forgiven some of their faults for their youth. The youngest child, named Imogen but called Smudge, is largely neglected by the rest of her family and spends most of her time in her room in a remote corner of the house drawing pictures of the family animals on the wall. The house is full of animals and servants who play significant parts in the story
The manor has been in the family for many many years. The Torrington-Swifts are having financial issues, and the family is on the verge of losing Sterne House, the home they love. As the novel begins Edward is heading off on a trip to Manchester hoping to secure to the money needed to help the family through these difficult times
It is also the eve of Emerald’s 20th birthday, and the family and servants are preparing a lavish party for her. Smudge sees the promised distractions of the evening as the perfect cover to action her own ambitious agenda: a Great Undertaking involving the family’s pony
In the midst of all the party activity, a train wreck occurs nearby, and a motley crew of tired and hungry passengers are directed to seek shelter at Sterne House. The stranded passengers arrive “… a small group of people was emerging from the gloom of the drive onto the gravel, slowly and all together. It was difficult to see how many of them there were”. All but one of the survivors are from the third-class carriage. Or are they survivors?
The family contains the motley bunch in the morning room, throws them some tea and tries to forget about them and forge ahead with their party, assuming the railway authorities are arranging to collect them. But there’s one survivor they can’t ignore, as much as they grow to wish they could. Charlie Traversham-Beechers is the sole first-class passenger, a caddish stirrer who infiltrates the family’s celebration and introduces a parlour game that forces the invited guests to face unpalatable truths and reveal unsavoury character traits
The novel gets more surreal as the night progresses. The third-class passengers begin to party - and to smell, Smudge’s undertaking doesn’t turn out as planned, Charlie forces Charlotte to take drastic action to get rid of him, and romance and passion bloom in unexpected places as the hosts and their invited guests put aside their differences to - at last - address the demands of the uninvited
The result is a playful and rollicking tale, with writing that crackles with originality and wit. The supernatural element is not really frightening and never threatens to dominate proceedings; it instead acts as a conduit for the main characters’ journeys. The Uninvited Guests also carries echoes of Shakespearean comedy; though menace hovers close to the main characters, it never tips into genuine danger, and there is a pleasing resolution in which everyone assumes their proper place, a little wiser and less proud