Squire Harry Headlong differs from the usual Welsh squire in that he, by some means or other, has become interested in books in addition to the common interests of hunting, racing, and drinking. He has journeyed to Oxford and then to London to find the philosophers and men of refined tastes to whom he has been introduced in the world of literature. Having rounded up a group of intellectuals, he invites them to his home in Wales, Headlong Hall, for the Christmas holidays.
Three men form the nucleus of the house party. The first is Mr. Foster, an optimist. To him, everything is working toward a state of perfection, and each advancement in technology, in government, or in society is all for the good. He believes that humanity will ultimately achieve perfection as a result of progress. Mr. Escot, in contrast, sees nothing but deterioration in the world. Where Mr. Foster sees improvement in advances, Escot sees evidence of corruption and evil that will soon reduce the whole human race to wretchedness and slavery. The third man of the trio is Mr. Jenkison, who takes a position exactly in the middle. He believes that the amounts of improvement and deterioration in the world balance each other perfectly and that good and evil will remain forever in equilibrium.
These philosophers, with a large company of other diletantes, descend upon Headlong Hall. Among the lesser guests is a landscape gardener who makes it his sole duty to persuade the squire to have his estate’s grounds changed from a wild tangle of trees and shrubs into a shaved and polished bed of green grass. Mr. Foster thinks that the grounds could be improved, Mr. Escot thinks that any change will be for the worse, and Mr. Jenkison thinks the scenery perfect as it is.
There are ladies present, both young and old, but they do not join in the philosophical discussions. Many of the talks among the men occur at the dinner table after the ladies have retired to another room and as the wine is being liberally poured, for Squire Headlong is aware that the mellowness produced by good burgundy is an incentive to conversation.
The discussions take various turns, all of them dominated by the diametrically opposed views of Foster and...
(The entire section is 908 words.)