Perhaps it is the clothes and jewels, the joys of a decadent world where the horrors of the First World War have yet to make their mark, or perhaps it is the juxtaposition of a modern time where the telephone and suffragism are both available, with the cold, starchy manners of the recently departed Victorian age.
Julian Fellowes knew this when he wrote Downton Abbey, and Sadie Jones has carefully mastered it in her latest novel The Uninvited Guests. Unfortunately, just like Fellowes, she seems unable to contain herself with the joys of the age itself, ending up instead in a world of unbelievable spooks and unconvincing plot twists. Jones creates a decadent world set in Edwardian England populated by eccentric characters and intriguing back-stories, only to smash an enormous wrecking ball right through the middle of it.
As the household of the remote country house of Sterne prepares for the precocious Emerald’s 20th birthday party, news reaches them of a terrible train accident. Passengers are to be accommodated in the house until the Central Railway Company can move them on. But the strangers who arrive on the doorstep are less than friendly, and more than a little mysterious. One, in particular, in a bright red waistcoat, invites himself to the birthday celebrations, where he seems determined to cause mayhem.
Jones has a deft touch, and she sketches her characters beautifully, with tongue often resting gently in cheek. The first half of the novel is a delight, a Mitford-esque romp through eccentric relatives and frustrated passions, but the supernatural element feels forced and confused.
Sparkles of witty genius can be found throughout and the crumbling world of Sterne is as believable as E M Forster’s Howards End. But as a ghost story it falls flat, and its conclusion is unsatisfyingly frothy. It is, unfortunately, a book that lives up to its name.
• The Uninvited Guests
Chatto & Windus, £12.99