The story is told in four parts, sharply divided, differing in time, place, and characters and alternating between a Victorian country estate and a bombed-out London house during World War II. The focus of the whole is on the perception of a London woman, Mary, who learns about (or dreams) the experiences of the Victorian family and strongly identifies with Sarah, one of the daughters.
In the first episode, Papa and his family form a walking party to stroll through the stubbled autumn fields of his extensive land. The gathering honors three of his sons, who will leave the next day for boarding school. There is a sense of order and stability in their procession, a feeling of permanence. Details of action and conversation emphasize the extraordinary closeness between the two younger sisters, Henrietta and Sarah; they have shared all of their thoughts and all of their lives, and nothing, says Sarah, “can touch one without touching the other.”
The walkers are joined by two horseback riders, Papa’s eldest son and his friend Eugene. It is clear that the initiative to dismount and stroll with the others is Eugene’s, and it is clear that he is in love with Sarah. Leading his horse, he walks beside Sarah, separating her from Henrietta. Henrietta, thus isolated, begins a plaintive song that pierces her sister’s heart and makes Sarah long to call out her sister’s name and to restore the old sense of communion.
There is a sudden break. The name Henrietta is spoken not by her sister but by Mary, waking from sleep in a half-destroyed London house, in about 1942. The reader becomes aware that reality lies not in the happy autumn...
(The entire section is 680 words.)