PopMatters is moving to WordPress in December. We will continue to publish on this site as we work on the move. We aim to make it a seamless experience for readers.


The Servants' Quarters by Lynn Freed

Is this worth reading? For lovers of what we might conveniently label “the Jane Eyre genre”, yes.

The Servants' Quarters

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
ISBN: 9780151012886
Author: Lynn Freed
Price: $24.00
Length: 256
Formats: Hardcover
US publication date: 2009-04

There are no new stories under the sun, only creative reworkings of a few plotlines: love, loss, revenge, redemption. That’s four. The fifth may be classified as variations on Victoriana, in this case, Jane Eyre.

Nine-year-old Cressida lives with her flirtatious mother, Muriel, dull sister, Miranda, and comatose father, Malcolm, in an unnamed South African locale. World War II has recently ended, and life is slowly returning to “normal”. But Cressida’s family is suffering economically, coming to depend on the largesse of George Harding, a disfigured war pilot who inhabits the nearby estate of Harding’s Rest with his batty mother and nephew Edgar. It was Harding’s brother, Charles, who unwittingly caused Malcolm’s coma after bashing him in the skull with a golf club. The men were fighting over Muriel, who had a flirtation with Charles. Charles thoughtlessly tomcatted with countless women, but after mortally injuring his onetime friend, he enlists in the service, conveniently getting himself killed in wartime. Brother George is left, as they say in hockey parlance, to pick up the garbage.

After moving the family into his refitted servant’s quarters, George engages the high-spirited Cressida as a companion for Edgar, who is shy and slow-witted. To this end, he gives Cressida gifts, money, and time in his study, having the sorts of charged discussions Rochester forced upon the unwilling Jane Eyre.

Cressida, whose high-jinks infuriate her mother and leave Edgar with broken bones, hates the entire business. She hates the servant’s quarters, Edgar’s mulish stupidity, and George’s -- known always to her as Mr. Harding -- keen attentions. What are her dreams? Her wishes for life? What does she think of this record, or that book? Harding’s intense interest is puzzling, even a little unsettling, given Cressida’s age.

Also unsettling are the ascending levels of prejudice. Cressida’s family is Jewish, permitted entry into the country club due to Charles Harding’s efforts. Both the Hardings and Cressida’s family rely on Zulus to do their housework, particularly Phineas, who moves between homes as Malcolm’s caregiver, cook, driver, and general man of all work. When Malcolm dies, Muriel marries the odious Mr. Ledson, an Englishman who makes no secret of his anti-Semitism. After a disastrous holiday at Giant’s Peak resort, the now teenaged Cressida moves to Harding’s rest full time, where she acts as Mrs. Harding’s companion.

Beautiful, sexually aware, Cressida enjoys teasing men, even when the results are unwanted. When the hopeless Edgar returns from boarding school to be privately tutored by one Andrew “Jock” Campbell. Cressida toys with Campbell until he falls hopelessly in love, then rears back in disgust. The same cannot be said about Mr. Harding; Cressida, at 17, is deeply in love with him. Theirs is relationship of charged conversations over coffee and port, parrying, questioning, and dealing with Harding’s touchy temper. A series of surgeries has rendered Harding marginally less hideous, though Cressida no longer cares. The rebellious girl subsides into an adoring wife, even as Harding’s health fails.

The Servant’s Quarters is clearly the work of a seasoned writer, elegantly written, compact, flowing. Yet it is utterly predictable -- Brontë combined with Beauty and the Beast, leavened with Cinderella’s witless, nasty relatives. The lingering effects of the Holocaust and South Africa’s racial inequities lift the story from banality, but the book still suffers. Is it worth reading? For lovers of what we might conveniently label “the Jane Eyre genre”, yes. For an evening’s entertainment, certainly. For deeper insights in postwar suffering, South Africa’s difficult history, or even romantic love, well, no.


Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology provider that we have until December to move off their service. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to fund the move and further development.





Is Carl Nevill's 'Eminent Domain' Worth the Effort?

In Carl Neville's latest novel, Eminent Domain, he creates complexities and then shatters them into tiny narrative bits arrayed along a non-linear timeline.


Horrors in the Closet: Horrifying Heteronormative Scapegoating

The artificial connection between homosexuality and communism created the popular myth of evil and undetectable gay subversives living inside 1950s American society. Film both reflected and refracted the homophobia.


Johnny Nash Refused to Remember His Place

Johnny Nash, part rock era crooner, part Motown, and part reggae, was too polite for the more militant wing of the Civil Rights movement, but he also suffered at the hands of a racist music industry that wouldn't market him as a Black heartthrob. Through it all he was himself, as he continuously refused to "remember his place".


John Hollenbeck Completes a Trilogy with 'Songs You Like a Lot'

The third (and final?) collaboration between a brilliant jazz composer/arranger, the Frankfurt Radio Big Band, vocalists Kate McGarry and Theo Bleckman, and the post-1950 American pop song. So great that it shivers with joy.


The Return of the Rentals After Six Years Away

The Rentals release a space-themed album, Q36, with one absolute gem of a song.


Matthew Murphy's Post-Wombats Project Sounds a Lot Like the Wombats (And It's a Good Thing)

While UK anxiety-pop auteurs the Wombats are currently hibernating, frontman Matthew "Murph" Murphy goes it alone with a new band, a mess of deprecating new earworms, and revived energy.


The 100 Best Albums of the 2000s: 80-61

In this next segment of PopMatters' look back on the music of the 2000s, we examine works by British electronic pioneers, Americana legends, and Armenian metal provocateurs.


In the Tempest's Eye: An Interview with Surfer Blood

Surfer Blood's 2010 debut put them on the map, but their critical sizzle soon faded. After a 2017 comeback of sorts, the group's new record finds them expanding their sonic by revisiting their hometown with a surprising degree of reverence.


Artemis Is the Latest Jazz Supergroup

A Blue Note supergroup happens to be made up of women, exclusively. Artemis is an inconsistent outing, but it dazzles just often enough.


Horrors in the Closet: A Closet Full of Monsters

A closet full of monsters is a scary place where "straight people" can safely negotiate and articulate their fascination and/or dread of "difference" in sexuality.


'Wildflowers & All the Rest' Is Tom Petty's Masterpiece

Wildflowers is a masterpiece because Tom Petty was a good enough songwriter by that point to communicate exactly what was on his mind in the most devastating way possible.


Jazz Composer Maria Schneider Takes on the "Data Lords" in Song

Grammy-winning jazz composer Maria Schneider released Data Lords partly as a reaction to her outrage that streaming music services are harvesting the data of listeners even as they pay musicians so little that creativity is at risk. She speaks with us about the project.


The 100 Best Albums of the 2000s: 100-81

PopMatters' best albums of the 2000s begin with a series of records that span epic metal, ornate indie folk, and a terrifying work of electronic music.


The Power of Restraint in Sophie Yanow, Paco Roca, and Elisa Macellari's New Graphic Novels

The magical quality that makes or breaks a graphic novel lies somewhere in that liminal space in which art and literature intersect.


'People of the City' Is an Unrelenting Critique of Colonial Ideology and Praxis

Cyprian Ekwensi's People of the City is a vivid tale of class struggle and identity reclamation in the shadows of colonialism's reign.


1979's 'This Heat' Remains a Lodestone for Avant-Rock Adventure

On their self-titled debut, available for the first time on digital formats, This Heat delivered an all-time classic stitched together from several years of experiments.


'The Edge of Democracy' and Parallels of Political Crises

Academy Award-nominated documentary The Edge of Democracy, now streaming on Netflix, lays bare the political parallels of the rise of Bolsonaro's Brazil with Trump's America.


The Pogues' 'The BBC Sessions 1984-1986' Honors Working-Class Heroes

The Pogues' BBC Sessions 1984-1986 is a welcome chapter in the musical story of these working-class heroes, who reminded listeners of the beauty and dignity of the strong, sooty backs upon which our industrialized world was built.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.