Monday, March 19, 2018

A Country Gentleman and His Family, by Mrs. Oliphant

Forgotten Books Classic Reprint Series, 2012
originally published 1886
243 pp

A Country Gentleman and His Family is a classic example of a Victorian "triple decker," or novel published in three volumes.     It is also, quite unexpectedly, a very dark novel from beginning to end, one whose central character was described in a contemporary review from The Spectator (5 June 1886) as a "prig of the first magnitude."   In my opinion, that's letting Theo Warrender off way too easily -- had this book been written today, he'd have likely been diagnosed with some sort of major psychological disorder bordering on the psychotic.   Given the somewhat innocuous title, having a character like this in center stage  turns this novel into something well beyond the range of disturbing; this is no flibbertigibberty, lightweight Victorian novel nor is there anything at all dull about it.

The novel begins with two deaths -- one, that of Theo Warrender's father which brings young Theo home from Oxford, and the second that of Lord Markland, both of which will become turning points in Theo's life.  Theo's mom, who had been married for the past 26 years to a man who was content with things remaining the same throughout their entire married life, is now ready to enjoy her freedom.  While she "shed the truest tears," on his death, she's also looking forward to being able to "shake the dust off her feet, to leave her home and all her associations, to get out into the world and breathe a larger air."  Her home "was a prison to her," and what she really wanted was to be away from it.   At the same time, though, she understands that she has to go through the "make-believe which convention forced upon her," and that includes going into public mourning, and having to deal with the decisions of her son Theo in his new role of head of the household.

As the Warrenders (also including daughters Minnie and Charlotte aka "Chatty") are dealing with their loss, they also become involved in the death of Lord Markland, who is brought to the Warrender home after a fatal accident.  His widow, not able to grieve very much, had married very early and hadn't quite realized just what she was getting herself into in this marriage.  As we're told,
"Young Markland, it was understood, has sown his wild oats somewhat plentifully at Oxford and elsewhere; and it was therefore supposed, with very little logic, that there were no more to sow. But this had not proved to be the case..."
The young Lady Markland had spent a great deal of her marriage alone as her husband was out doing his thing; she devoted herself full time to her young son Geoff, who is only eight at the time his father dies.  Needless to say, the lives of the Warrenders and the Marklands will become interwined as Theo develops a grand "passion" that drives him to become ever closer to the young widow.

Forgotten Books, 2012
originally published 1886
242 pp

 The story follows these characters, and in Volume 2 Oliphant adds something new in the form of a mysterious house called "The Elms," which is owned by the uncle of young adventurer Dick Cavendish, who has been sent to toss out its tenants.  We are sort of left in the dark for a while as to who occupies it; in the meantime Cavendish, who is an old school friend of Theo's, gets to know his family.  While this is going on, Theo is getting closer to Lady Markland; as he does so, he begins to understand little Geoff as his rival, which brings his seething, inner anger closer to a boiling point.

Forgotten Books, 2012
originally published 1886
226 pp

As it turns out though, throughout the first two volumes as Theo is going off the rails, we haven't even begun to see him at his worst.   The story of Dick Cavendish continues, as we discover that he has a dark secret that impedes progress with young Chatty, with whom he has fallen in love.   

Aside from the disturbing but great story, there is so much that falls under the microscope here, including  the relationship between mothers and sons, parenthood in general,  and the constriction of social conventions, especially for women of a particular class.  Widowhood is another topic, but the real question here seems to be this: if you're a widow with a child and you remarry, whose needs should come first? 

Despite its 711 pages,  A Country Gentleman and His Family goes by very quickly.  While it is definitely disturbing, Oliphant takes on a number of contemporary issues involving women in Victorian society.  There is a sequel called A House Divided Against Itself, which, considering my sheer dislike of Theo Warrender, I'm not too sure I want to read, but who knows.  This one I can definitely recommend, although beware -- it's dark and gets darker as the story progresses.  

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