Just out in paperback, Sadie Jones’ The Uninvited Guests was praised when it came out in hardcover last year, earning many comparisons to Downton Abbey for its humorous and slightly sinister portrayal of life in a 1912 English manor house. Praised by book club favorites Ann Patchett, who called it a “shimmering comedy of manners” and Sarah Blake, bestselling author of The Postmistress, who called it “delicious…like something written by a wicked Jane Austen,” The Uninvited Guests is a perfect book for Downton fans who are looking to whet their appetites between Sunday night viewings.
Read on for more information about the book and for a Q&A with Sadie Jones. And make sure to look for the paperback of The Uninvited Guests wherever books are sold!
One late spring evening in 1912, in the kitchens at Sterne, preparations begin for an elegant supper party in honor of Emerald Torrington's twentieth birthday. But only a few miles away, a dreadful accident propels a crowd of mysterious and not altogether savory survivors to seek shelter at the ramshackle manor—and the household is thrown into confusion and mischief.
Evening turns to stormy night, and a most unpleasant parlor game threatens to blow respectability to smithereens: Smudge Torrington, the wayward youngest daughter of the house, decides that this is the perfect moment for her Great Undertaking.The Uninvited Guests is the bewitching new novel from the critically acclaimed Sadie Jones. The prizewinning author triumphs in this frightening yet delicious drama of dark surprises—where social codes are uprooted and desire daringly trumps propriety—and all is alight with Edwardian wit and opulence.
Would you align this novel more with drawing-room comedies, or with supernatural ghost tales? Or do such distinctions matter?
In writing The Uninvited Guests I wanted to play with both of those, as well as nineteenth-century morality tales, the Love Comedy—but break the rules and confound expectation. It is a subversive book in many ways. The laws of nature are broken in the story, and so it felt appropriate to mess about with the laws of fiction, too.
Why do you suppose fantastic tales, or “ghost stories,” have such enduring appeal in human storytelling?
I think because they are both comforting and dangerous; we are safe within the conventions of fiction to enter a risky and unpredictable universe.
The characters in this book are all very distinctly rendered, each with his or her own foibles. Which was the most fun for you to write about?
I loved all of them, but perhaps Charlotte Torrington, the self-serving matriarch, the most. She is the most complex character, a monstrous narcissist and quite badly behaved. She was great fun to write—less fun to have as a mother, though, I should think, for poor Emerald.
How did you conduct the research for this book? Did you spend any time in grand old estates?
The house, Sterne, came from a dream and was very precise in my imagination. The landscape is perhaps more inspired by surrealist or naive art, or even seventeenth-century landscape painting, than reality; the perspectives are skewed, and we have as readers an odd, aerial view of it. I think, too, that we have in our collective consciousness a deep sense of recognition for grand old country houses, having read about them, seen, heard of, and visited them in fiction, film, and life so often that we can’t really separate the fact of them from fiction—I can’t, anyway. To gain a sense of the Edwardian period as current, and not historical, I read books written at the time, and a friend of mine lent me a copy of Mrs Beeton that was printed around 1920—a little late for my Torringtons, but I made do. The recipes were inspirational—an obsession with offal, gelatine, stitching things up, and various cures for common ailments thrown in, too.
All three of your three novels to date have been works of historical fiction. What attracts you to writing about times past?I don’t think of any of them as “historical” novels. Time and landscape—the where and the when—are essential in building the world of the story, and so far I haven’t had a book that could be told best by being contemporary. I do hope to, though.
What do you hope readers will take from this book?
I want people to find pleasure in it—to enjoy the language and revel in the world. I had to work myself into a slightly heightened state to write Sterne; I imagined heaps of velvet, chocolate, dream-state flights about the house—I should like to give the reader something of that delight. I hope that I have.
You have worked as a screenwriter. How does the experience of writing for the printed page compare to writing for cinema?I am so far an essentially unsuccessful screenwriter, so the experience of being on my own, creating a world and hoping others will be able to take it from the page, is essentially the same. Perhaps I believed I was only a screenwriter because I thought the big screen was the closest I would be able to get to an external physical representation of my imagination. As it turned out, the printed page of the novel was closer and far bigger.
How did you devise the outlandish dinner menu? Were you forced to taste Calf’s Head Soup in the research process?
Ah—that was Mrs Beeton. I do love the idea of boiling up a calf ’s head, but not enough to do it in life. I do like tongue, though.
You may whet the appetite of your readers for more works of supernatural fiction. Are there any titles you’d recommend?Perhaps ironically, I’m not much of a fan of either supernatural fiction or magic realism—another area the oddness of Sterne approaches. If I were, I might not have been able to write the book; as it is, I am not so familiar with the territory that I couldn’t make it my own. The Turn of the Screw was a favorite of mine growing up; the gray area between hysteria and the supernatural—also told in Charlotte Brontë’s Agnes Grey—is fascinating to me. But those are very serious and profound books and seem to condemn the female protagonists to delusion. Mine is altogether more playful, although admittedly the games get a little nasty. I’m building up to writing a love story—that’s all I can say about it at the moment. It’s at the stage where it’s perfect because there are no words on the page yet and anything is possible.