The narrator, a successful middle-aged novelist, tells the story from his point of view in episodes that span about three years. He reminisces about his long-standing acquaintance with Ferdy Rabenstein, a cultured and affluent Jewish bachelor of London who moves in the best social circles. From Ferdy, the narrator learns that the Blands, who have invited him to Tilby, their estate in Sussex, are Ferdy’s relatives, Sir Adolphus Bland being his nephew. Unlike Ferdy, they have concealed their Jewish identity and have led the lives of English country gentry.
Eminently successful, Sir Adolphus, a conservative member of Parliament, served as minister of munitions during World War I. Muriel, his wife, has converted to Catholicism. Their two sons, who bear the quintessentially English names George and Henry, are enrolled in elite educational institutions. Henry attends Eton, and George, the elder son, has just been sent down from Oxford, where he wasted his time and his father’s money. Family ties with Ferdy have been broken, in part because he would not change his name during World War I and also because the Blands want no association with unassimilated Jews.
Because George will inherit the estate, his father wants him to follow a suitable profession, such as the diplomatic service. George has other ideas. He asks permission to go to Munich to study languages and prepare for an Oxford examination, a request his family reluctantly grants.
A few days after his return from the Blands, the narrator sees Ferdy in London and is invited to dinner. At the dinner he finds George present, a surprising turn because George’s parents have rejected Ferdy’s invitation, sent through the narrator himself. Ferdy has interceded with his sister, Lady Hannah Bland, George’s grandmother, who arranged the meeting. However, the dinner is not a success because Ferdy embarrasses George, whom he has just met for the first time, by telling humorous Jewish stories.
When the narrator next sees Muriel, he learns that George has spent his time in Germany studying music in the hope of becoming a concert pianist. The parents turn their energies to discouraging him from a course that they regard as unsuitable and demeaning. When George returns to Tilby for his twenty-first birthday celebration, however, he is heaped with gifts. On this occasion he causes consternation when he informs his family that he intends to return to Munich, saying that he knows he has genius. Even Ferdy, who is now on speaking terms with Sir Adolphus, sides with the family against George’s ambition. After George remains unmoved by pleas and threats, his grandmother, Lady Bland, suggests a compromise. He will be allowed two years’ study in Munich and will return home at the end. If it is not apparent by then that he has genuine talent, he will give up music and assume the duties of an elder son on a landed estate.
Later, the narrator visits George in Munich at the request of his mother because the agreement with George stipulated that members of the immediate family would not visit him. He finds George living a bohemian lifestyle but conscientiously applying himself to his piano. He also learns that, unlike his parents, George is concerned with his Jewish identity and heritage and takes pride in his friendship with Jewish students, artists, and intellectuals. He no longer thinks of himself as English. The narrator hears George play the piano, and, although he is no critic of music, concludes that George’s hands are not well coordinated. When he returns to England, he tells the family only that George is well.
At the end of two years George returns to Tilby, and the family gathers to judge his talent. With his concurrence, they have invited the concert pianist Lea Makart to hear him play and to make the judgment about his career. The narrator notices the same lack of coordination that he had...
(The entire section contains 1344 words.)
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