In his classic thriller Rogue Male, Geoffrey Household unwittingly provides one important key to the appreciation of his writings. “I am not content with myself,” his then-nameless hero proclaims. “With his pencil and exercise-book I hope to find some clarity. I create a second self, a man of the past by whom the man of the present may be measured.”
The quest for that clarity and for better gauges of “the man of the present” preoccupied Household in his stories. His education and maturation came during the devastations and disillusionments born of World War I and the profound economic, political, and social tumults of the years between the great wars: worldwide economic depression; the eruptions of Soviet communism, of fascism, and of National Socialism; widespread criticism of established capitalist practices and values in Great Britain and in the United States; the acceptance, superficially at least, of new personal mores; rejection of liberal individualism in favor of mass movements of one complexion or another; and the waning of traditional religions as a source of solace for many individuals in industrialized nations. Such transforming forces were the stuff of Household’s characters’ discourse in several novels (for example, The Third Hour), and in none of them are they absent from the background.
Although he was a cosmopolite, a man whose writings attest his wide tolerance, Household consistently projected values that harked back to those of Great Britain’s upper and middle classes during most of the nineteenth century. His eschewal of greed as an acceptable source of private motivation, however, prompted him to strip these classic liberal values as nearly as he could to their noble or aristocratic common denominators, particularly as they continued to be accented in England’s elite schools, colleges, and universities.
These denominators, refined from the nineteenth century’s perceptions of Greco-Roman civilization, furnished a code of personal conduct that was chivalric. Nobility—which had little to do with one’s station or rank in life—was the central concept of this code. Not always easily definable—for example, as...
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