Antony Clarendon grows up in the comfortable, protected, pre-World War I environment of rural Great Britain, believing that Englishmen are generous and caring and love the land with an opulence not found elsewhere. Antony’s early memories of Vine House, the home in which he was born and grew up, a seventeenth century brick and stone dwelling with a coat of arms over the door, are memories of a “harmony so complete that he had breathed it as naturally and unconsciously as pure air.” The people he encounters, from his nanny, Annie, to the local squire, Henry Scrope, affirm the permanence and kindliness of this splendid world.
A very brief affair with his cousin Evelyn convinces him of the paramount importance of the world of the senses. Even a note of dissonance sounded by Stephen Crang, the local radical, who simplistically reduces all life to the problem of subsistence, hardly gets him to change his opinions, although it does encourage him to ponder the extent of society’s responsibility toward those less fortunate.
When Antony is graduated from secondary school, he has no clear idea of what he will do. He tells his father that he is considering becoming an architect, and his father gives him some money to go to Italy to luxuriate in the wonders of the past. On an island in the Tyrrhenian Sea (symbolically called Aeaea after the mythical dwelling place of Circe), Antony meets the love of his life, Katharina. They have an intense two-week affair (“he heard her whispering from far away: ‘Herz, Herz, mein Herz!’”) and make plans to meet again in London, where she will go to live with him, after first returning home to Vienna. Unfortunately, this is the summer of 1914. The Great War intervenes, and she cannot leave her country. The lovers’ meeting never takes place.
Five years later, Antony, having fought on the Western Front as an infantry officer, is haunted by memories of the killing and destruction. He now finds England insipid and views most of its establishment as misguided. Antony wants to be left alone. He continues to be traumatized by the loss of Katharina and asks Henry Scrope, the local squire in his childhood village, to help him obtain a passport to go to Austria and look for her. Scrope’s connections, however, do not pay off.
Antony feels his past slipping away from him. “There was something in having a firm path underfoot, gasless air and no shelling, but otherwise he found nothing [about his old haunts] to rejoice in.” His father pressures him to settle down with a steady job and to marry Margaret, with whom Antony had an affair in the last year of the war. Margaret wants to become Tony’s wife and even tries to entrap him into getting her pregnant. Antony sees through her. He is determined to make no decisions concerning matrimony until he has had a chance to go to Vienna for Katharina. “There was one certainty from which he could not escape, and that was that his relation with Margaret had never been wholly right, never the complete liberation and utter self-forgetting he had experienced with Katha.”
Antony finally manages to get a passport and an Austrian visa and sets off to find his love. He goes to her last known address but finds the house deserted and for sale. He tries to discover her whereabouts from the real estate office, but the agent refers him to the building’s present owner, who...
(The entire section is 1387 words.)