Excerpt from Peculiar Ground by Lucy Hughes-Hallett, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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Peculiar Ground

by Lucy Hughes-Hallett

Peculiar Ground by Lucy Hughes-Hallett X
Peculiar Ground by Lucy Hughes-Hallett
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  • First Published:
    Jan 2018, 464 pages
    Jan 2019, 464 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Cynthia C. Scott
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Peculiar Ground

I had never been inside a theatre then. Perhaps otherwise I might have judged the play, or masque, or ballet (I hardly know what to call it) more stringently. But there is an especial piquancy in seeing one's friends play-acting. They are recognisably themselves, but they are also strange. The doubleness is at once frightening and delicious, like conversing with a friend standing behind one's back, while watching her face in a looking-glass.

My cousin sat majestically enthroned in the centre of the audience, shining like the pale spring sun in his silvery silks. His wife was beside him until, mid-way through the show, she rose, cast aside her mantle and, walked onto the stage, transforming herself as she did so from great lady to adventurous libertine. The audience – both the gentry seated in tiered rows around the amphitheatre and hoi polloi (myself among them) standing behind to peer through the arches of the pergola - seemed alike to quiver with pleasant shock.

How transgressive was her metamorphosis! She, who was always so demure, became, without benefit of mask or face-paint, a loose-living woman, Rahab the whore of Jericho, she who sheltered her nation's enemies and helped them to escape.

She received the Israelite spies (two young men in long smocks, who sang a vainglorious ditty about their military exploits to the accompaniment of pipes). She supervised their entertainment by a troop of Canaanite strumpets who danced lustily, flourishing veils made from stuff I recognised as the canopy that once draped my mother's tester bed. She connived and conspired, with much exaggerated fluttering of her hands and shushing with finger on lip. And at last, to a great strumming and scraping of musical instruments, she flung a scarlet rope. Or rather Mr Armstrong's son, known for his ability to crack whips and cast fish lines, stood behind her and flung a rope on her behalf.

It seemed to fly around the stage, enclosing dancers and musicians in a loop of brightness, before an attendant caught it and fixed it to a post. The spies then hitched up their smocks and, swinging from the rope, twirled themselves, out of Rahab's window, and out of the hostile city of Jericho. Or rather, they skipped off the stage. The harlots (among them young Holly Goodyear, whom my mother had taught to be a rare needlewoman) were singing and simpering and waving their braceleted arms aloft. Lady Woldingham, with a profound curtsey, withdrew from the stage to great applause.

The hosts of Israel, eight men strong, came prancing on, helmeted in painted card and flourishing wooden swords. All would have been lost for the people of Canaan had these doughty warriors set seriously to work, breaching the walls and sacking the city as was surely their duty. Instead they formed themselves into a double row and performed a kind of volta, kicking their legs about with admirable energy but only imperfect timing.

Mr Rose, the architect, was standing near me and had saluted me cordially. Now he leant over and said 'It is no wonder that the Romans found the chosen people so easy to dominate. Discipline and exactitude. Those are the qualities a fighting force requires.' He is a carping man, too much inclined to make a mock of others', and I did not like his enlisting me as his accomplice in cynicism, but he meant to be friendly, so I smiled a little. He said then, 'Does John know that you are returned?'

For a moment I was puzzled. I had never used Mr Norris's given name. This other's doing so felt impertinent. I was glad to be distracted by a tremendous din from the stage. The Israelites had formed up in pairs and were spinning each other around, red-faced and heavy footed, whooping the while. Some sort of climax was approaching. I looked around, vaguely expecting someone or something - a monster, an army, an angel – to spring up from the crowd as my Lady had done, and I found myself meeting Mr Norris's gaze.

From the book Peculiar Ground by Lucy Hughes-Hallett. Copyright ©2018 by Lucy Hughes-Hallett. Reprinted courtesy of Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.

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