"The Distant Hours": Book Discussion and Pear Custard Pound Cakes Recipe
From the first pages of The Distant Hours, imaginations are captured, like Edie’s, by the dark tale of the Mud Man, a haunting fictional book within this one: “Can you hear him? The trees can. They are the first to hear him coming...It is moonless when the Mud Man comes.”
Edith Burchill is asked by the owner of her small book editing company to interview the twin sisters Saffy and Percy Blythe, who live with their baby sister, the town lunatic, Juniper—all of them as ancient as the moldering castle they inhabit. She is to attempt to uncover their history and a little biography of their father to include in an anniversary edition of their father’s most famous novel, The True History of the Mudman, a story which allegorically predicted the nearly final tragedy at Milderhurst castle.
But her inquiry is not impersonal. Three now elderly women once housed her own mother as a child during the London raids of WWII, though her mother had never spoken of it until a lost letter from the eccentric Juniper arrives. Though much is concealed from Edie and each other, each sister bears her own secret burden, and every story is tantalizingly unfolded from their own various perspectives, in order to create a perfectly overlapping history of the tragedies and losses within the stone walls of Milderhurst.
This book has all the eerie, fascinating charm of a Gothic novel, including a ruinous house wherein lie the: “ancient walls that sing the distant hours.” It parallels the lives of several women, all closely connected by the mysterious The True History of the Mud Man, and the tragedies and inner demons that haunt all who’ve lived in the ancient castle.
1. How did the story within the story, “The True History of the Mud Man” stay with lead Edie to the story about the Blythe sisters? Because she discovered it when she was ten, it stayed with her in a way only childhood books can. Which books do you feel this way about from your younger years: “Real life was never going to be able to compete with fiction again?
2. Did the memories of Milderhurst castle haunt or influence the people who lived in or visited it, and did its “ancient walls sing the distant hours”?
3. Edith delighted in “stories that unfold the same way every time”, like the Mud Man. How did his story repeat in the Blythe family history?
4. Edie, in a way, compared Juniper to “Spring flowers, pressed by Victorian ladies in their scrapbooks. Beautiful things, killed in the kindest of ways, carried forward into a time and place, a season, no longer their own.” Why?
5. Is Juniper someone to be feared or pitied? Why? How do others feel about her?
6. The sisters’ father Raymond—victim or a tormentor—is he merely a product of the generations and his upbringing? Does his mental health play a role in his behavior, and does that mean Juniper’s mental issues are entirely genetic, or were they created, indulged, or enhanced by his treatment of her? What was his condition, his final wishes, given to the twins?
7. What did you think of the contrast of the scene where Tom Cavill meets Juniper Blythe, and of the way the author showed it from both perspectives? Was that helpful in gaining a fuller concept of each character?
8. Does the dynamic between Edie’s mother and her aunt Rita at all resemble the contrast of Percy and Saffy? What specific instances make you think so?
9. Was it wrong of Edith to read her mother’s letters? Or was it justified since her mother was always so closed off, and she was merely seeking a way to get closer to her, and to understand the sisters better that she would be writing about?
10. What are some of the differences between Percy and Saffy? Which one of them stronger and what makes them that way? How were Saffy’s and Juniper’s writing styles different?
11. Would you say the Mud Man was purely a fictional character to Raymond Blythe? Was it his muse? Or do you feel it was an embodiment of all his mental torments his whole life? Or was it a real ghost that caused all the tragedies within the castle?
12. How do you feel about the conclusion of the story of the sisters Blythe? Had you guessed it correctly, or were you shocked? What were the many tragedies of Milderhurst castle?
Bonus questions relating to other books:
1. The other books that were mentioned as favorites of Edie’s— Bleak House, Wuthering Heights, and Jane Eyre—have you read any of them? Do you see any similarities between any of their themes and this story, or between any of their characters and those in this novel?
2. Do the sisters Blythe—Seraphina, Persephone, and Juniper—bear any similarities to the real life Bronte sisters in their different writing styles, subjects, or methods? How about in their personalities?
Though war had been declared, the children were still "eating canned pears" and singing songs on the way to their new homes where they would stay during the war to avoid the bombings in London. One of Edie's coworkers made her and Herbert a pound cake at their office to celebrate Herbert promoting her to the position of vice chairman.
Edie’s Mum also had pear cake at the Lyons Corner House in the Strand and she remembered “thinking it was very fancy.” It became her favorite, and was something her husband took her out to have on their first date. Juniper also found two pears at a market to serve alongside cake for Tom for his birthday. And on the night Saffy was going to tell Percy she intended to go live on her own in a flat in London, she made a custard for them both to have at dinner.
To combine these delicious, simple ingredients, I created a canned pear with homemade custard pound cake, and drizzled some of the cakes with more of the custard.
Pear and Custard Pound Cakes
- 1/2 cup (1 stick) plus 2 tbsp salted butter, softened to room temperature
- 3/4 cup granulated sugar
- 1/4 cup custard, (recipe follows) or you can use store bought
- 1/4 cup milk
- 1 1/4 cup all-purpose flour
- 1/2 tsp baking powder
- 1 tsp vanilla extract
- 2 large eggs
- 1/2 cup diced canned pears, plus 1 tbsp pear juice from can
Pear and Custard Pound Cakes
- Preheat the oven to 350° F. Combine the custard, butter, and sugar in the bowl of a stand mixer on medium speed for one minute. Then add the pear juice, milk, and vanilla and mix on low for half a minute. In a separate bowl, stir together the flour and baking powder.
- Slowly add the flour and baking powder mix to the mixer, still on low speed. When all the flour has disappeared, and the eggs, one at a time. Stop the mixer and scrape down the insides of the bowl with a rubber spatula. Mix for another minute on medium-low speed. Then stop the mixer, add the diced pears, and fold in with a rubber spatula. Scoop into greased cupcake tins (it's best if you use a little oil and a sprinkle of flour in each tin and shake it around).
- Bake for 17-19 minutes. Allow to cool ten minutes before eating. You can also drizzle them with leftover custard.
Easy Homemade Custard
- 1 cup whole milk
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 1 teaspoon salted butter
- 3 egg yolks
- 1/4 cup granulated sugar
- 1 1/2 tablespoons cornstarch
In a medium saucepan cook and constantly stir milk, vanilla extract, and butter over medium heat until simmering. Remove mixture from heat before it comes to a boil.
Whisk eggs, sugar, and cornstarch together in a bowl until sugar dissolves.
Set saucepan back over low heat. Pour in egg mixture slowly, whisking constantly, until custard thickens enough to coat the bottom of a spoon, 5 to 10 minutes.
Rate the Recipe
Pear and Custard Pound Cakes
Other books by Kate Morton include the newest books, and The Lake House. Her first novel, also a NY Times bestseller, was The House at Riverton. Her other books include The Secret Keeper and The Forgotten Garden. The Clockmaker's Daughter
For a story of a house with a dark, twisted history and even more twisted characters, try Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte, which is mentioned within this book.
For a story of a writer haunted by her past, who is more connected to it than she realizes and to the haunted grounds on which she is seeking to write, try The Ghost Orchid by Carol Goodman.
I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith is a more humorous, though still, at times, tragic, story about sisters, a brother, and their father living in an old English castle filled with secrets. It begins with a girl with a book in her lap and her feet in the sink.
For a book of short stories with astonishing twists and gloomy characters, read The Doll:The Lost Short Stories by Daphne du Maurier.
You can also read any of the other recommendations within this book, such as Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte, Bleak House Charles Dickens, the works of T. S. Eliot, Third Act in Venice, Cold Comfort Farm, The Thinking Reed, or Sir Gawain and the Green Knight by the Pearl Poet.
“I’ve hundreds of...friends contained within bindings, page after glorious page of ink, stories that unfold the same way every time but never lose their joy, that take me by the hand and lead me through doorways into worlds of great terror and rapturous delight.”
At a bookstore:“The high shelves and long rows of of neatly lined-up spines were immensely reassuring. Amid the smell of ink and binding...I felt that I could breathe more easily...I picked out favorite authors and titles like a teacher taking roll call.”
“...little aware that I was about to cross a tremendous threshold beyond which there would be no return, that in my hand I held an object whose simple appearance belied its profound power. All true readers have a book, a moment, like the one I describe.”
“Real life was never going to be able to compete with fiction again.”
“...hidden passages...If one goes quietly enough, it’s possible to hear all manner of whispered things, to get lost inside if one isn’t careful. They’re the castle’s veins.”
“...ancient walls that sing the distant hours.”
“He said that if he didn’t go carefully about the castle, sometimes the distant hours forgot to hide.”
“Ours are old stones, but they’re still just stones. They’ve no doubt seen a lot but they’re good at keeping secrets.”
“Spring flowers, pressed by Victorian ladies in their scrapbooks. Beautiful things, killed in the kindest of ways, carried forward into a time and place, a season, no longer their own.”
“Juniper...worked like someone trying to write themselves free of entanglement. She did so wherever inspiration found her, writing on the run, spilling behind her scraps of poems, fragmented images...all littered the castle, dropped like breadcrumbs.”
“All houses have hearts; hearts that have loved, hearts that have billowed with contentment, hearts that have been broken. The heart at the center of Milderhurst was larger than most and it beat more powerfully. It thumped and paused, raced and slowed, in the small room at the top of the tower.”
“These weren’t just any walls, these were the stones of Milderhurst castle, beneath whose skin the distant hours were whispering, watching.
“Seledreorig… The word came into my head like a whisper. Sadness for the lack of a hall.”
“We need our mysteries.”
“A person needed their set of dates...It wasn’t enough to retain only the first. A person without a closed bracket could never rest.”
Questions & Answers
© 2018 Amanda Leitch