Haunted by phantoms of World War II and the Holocaust, young Cressida lives in terror of George Harding, who, severely disfigured, has returned from the front to recover on his family’s African estate. When Harding plucks young Cressida’s beautiful mother and family from financial ruin, establishing them in the old servants’ quarters, Cressida is swept into a life inexorably bound to his.
In her new setting, she is conscripted to enliven Harding’s nephew, the hopelessly timid Edgar, to make him “wild and daring.” She takes on this task with resentful fury, leading the boy astray and, in the process, learning to manipulate the disparities of power, class, and ambition. All the while, Harding himself is watching her. And waiting.
The Servants’ Quarters, a complex and sophisticated love story, evokes a vanishing world of privilege with a Pygmalion twist. It is, as Amy Tan said, “Freed’s best novel yet.”
1. Cressida begins by telling us that she was singled out as the scapegoat in her family. Is she right? How do the other characters cope with being “punished” by fate?
2. What does Cressida’s mother, Muriel, teach Cressida about women and power?
3. What aspects of Cressida’s world are captured in the novel’s title? What determines whether the characters rise or fall in terms of status? Is money the only force that drives class roles in the South African society presented on these pages? To what degree is anti-Semitism a factor?
4. How might the novel have unfolded if it had been told from Phineas’s point of view? What strategies has he developed for surviving a life that will always place him in the servants’ quarters?
5. Did your opinion of Mr. Harding change as Cressida grew from a child into a woman? Why is he drawn to being a caregiver? What does he receive in exchange for shepherding the children of others?
6. How did you react when you discovered the real reasons behind Cressida’s father’s injuries? How was she affected by her lifelong idealization of him, regarding him as essentially perfect?
7. The specter of war haunts most of the novel’s characters. What happens when Cressida confronts her nightmares? Are the effects of the photographs of concentration camps, and of Mr. Harding’s disfigurement, permanent?
8. Muriel feels superior to Mr. Ledson — particularly in terms of intelligence and class. Is she indeed superior to him, or is he in some ways superior to her? Would you have been willing to pursue marriage with him if you had been in Muriel’s shoes?
9. What does Mr. Harding’s definition of an ideal man appear to be — someone who avoids “showing off” (which, he says, led to his severe injuries) or someone who is brave yet cautious? How does he resolve these contradictions in his adoption of Edgar? Does Edgar benefit from this adoption?
10. What new approach to womanhood does Mrs. Bourne-Thomas give Cressida? What reasons does Muriel have to be jealous?
11. What accounts for the differences between Cressida and her sister, Miranda?
12. What caused Cressida’s resentment of Mr. Harding to fade? What was his greatest legacy to her?
13. What do the closing images of Guy Bourne-Thomas reveal about the kind of adult Cressida has become?
14. In what ways does The Servants’ Quarters enhance the depictions of love and loss that Freed presented in her previous novels, stories, and essays? What new facets of her native South Africa does she share in Cressida’s story?
Praise for The Servants’ Quarters
“Freed’s great strength as a writer — like Anne Tyler and Muriel Spark, to name but two — is that she realizes “normal” is a word that barely, if ever, applies to human beings in real life, let alone in serious fiction. Normal is for stereotypes, and novelists who refuse to call central casting for their characters place themselves in a different league. . . Freed writes with great clarity and skill, and her occupancy of Cressida’s voice is exemplary. Short novel though this is, it contains multitudes—among the themes explored are wartime guilt, the Holocaust, the position of South African Jews in a fundamentally British class system and the extent to which our social relations are determined by our self-appointed roles as servants or masters.”—New York Times Book Review
“The broadest echoes of this wonderfully engaging novel come from Jane Austen and George Eliot. For this accomplishment any reader, male or female, wants to wave hat and veil and shout brava, brava!”—Alan Cheuse, NPR
“Freed blends Dickensian musings on class with a Brontë-like love story, set against the backdrop of South Africa after the Holocaust. . . It is deeply atmospheric, with a high-spirited narrator who frequently endears.”—San Francisco Chronicle
“A story of civilization and savagery, brisk as a strong cup of tea.”—O, The Oprah Magazine
Copyright © 2010 Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Discussion questions written by Amy Root.