Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1366
Pointz Hall is not one of the great English houses mentioned in the guidebooks, but it is old and comfortable and pleasantly situated in a tree-fringed meadow. The house is older than the name of its owners in the county. Although they hang the portrait of an ancestor in brocade and pearls beside the staircase and keep, under glass, a watch that stopped a bullet at Waterloo, the Olivers lived only a little more than a century in a district where the names of the villagers go back to the Domesday Book. The countryside still shows traces of the ancient Britons, the Roman road, the Elizabethan manor house, and the marks of the plow on a hill sown in wheat during Napoleon’s time.
The owner of the house is Bartholomew Oliver, retired from the Indian Civil Service. With him lives his son Giles, his daughter-in-law Isa, two small grandchildren, and his widowed sister, Mrs. Lucy Swithin. Bartholomew, a disgruntled old man who lives more and more in the past, is constantly snubbing his sister, as he did when they were children. Mrs. Swithin is a woman of careless dress, good manners, quiet faith, and great intelligence. Her favorite book is an Outline of History; she dreams of a time when Piccadilly was a rhododendron forest in which the mastodon roamed. Giles is a London stockbroker who wanted to be a farmer until circumstances decided otherwise. A misunderstanding lately developed between him and his wife Isa, who writes poetry in secret. She suspects that Giles is unfaithful and fancies herself in love with Rupert Haines, a married gentleman farmer of the neighborhood. Isa thinks that Mrs. Haines has the eyes of a gobbling goose.
On a June morning in 1939, Pointz Hall awakens. Mrs. Swithin, aroused by the birds, reads again in the Outline of History until the maid brings her tea. She wonders if the afternoon will be rainy or fine, for this is the day of the pageant to raise funds for installing electric lights in the village church. Later, she goes to early service. Old Bartholomew walks with his Afghan hound on the terrace where his grandson George is bent over a cluster of flowers. When the old man folds his newspaper into a cone to cover his nose and jumps suddenly at the boy, George begins to cry. Bartholomew grumbles that his grandson is a crybaby and goes back to his paper. From her window, Isa looks out at her son and the baby, Caro, in her perambulator that a nurse is pushing. Then she goes off to order the fish for lunch. She reads in Bartholomew’s discarded newspaper the story of an attempted assault on a girl in the barracks at Whitehall. Returning from church, Mrs. Swithin tacks another placard on the barn where the pageant will be given if the day turns out rainy; regardless of the weather, tea will also be served there during the intermission. Mocked again by her brother, she goes off to make sandwiches for the young men and women who are decorating the barn.
Giles is expected back from London in time for the pageant. The family decides not to wait lunch for him when Mrs. Manresa and a young man named William Dodge arrive unexpectedly and uninvited. They intended, Mrs. Manresa explains, to picnic in the country, but when she saw the Olivers’ name on the signpost, she suddenly decided to visit her old friends. Mrs. Manresa, loud, cheerful, and vulgar, is a woman of uncertain background married to a wealthy Jew. William Dodge, she says, is an artist. He is, he declares, a clerk. Giles, arriving in the middle of lunch and finding Mrs. Manresa’s showy car at the door, is furious; he and Mrs. Manresa are having an affair. After lunch, on the terrace, he sits, hating Dodge. Finally, Mrs. Swithin takes pity on Dodge’s discomfort and takes him off to see her brother’s collection of pictures. The young man wants to tell her that he is married, but that his child is not his child, that he is a pervert, that her kindness heals his wretched day; but he cannot speak.
The guests, arriving for the pageant, begin to fill the chairs set on the lawn, for the afternoon is sunny and clear. Behind the thick bushes that serve as a dressing room, Miss La Trobe, the author and director of the pageant, is giving the last instructions to her cast. She is something of a mystery in the village, for no one knows where she came from. There are rumors that she kept a tea shop and was an actress. Abrupt and restless, she walks about the fields, uses strong language, and drinks too much at the local pub. She is a frustrated artist. Now she is wondering if her audience will realize that she is trying to give unity to English history in her pageant and to give something of herself as well.
The pageant begins. The first scene shows the age of Chaucer, with pilgrims on their way to Canterbury. Eliza Clark, who sells tobacco in the village, appears in another scene as Queen Elizabeth. Albert, the village idiot, plays her court fool. The audience hopes he will not do anything dreadful. In a play performed before Gloriana, Mrs. Otter of the End House plays the old crone who saves the true prince, the supposed beggar who falls in love with the duke’s daughter. Then Miss La Trobe’s vision of the Elizabethan age ends, and it is time for tea during the intermission.
Mrs. Manresa applauds; she sees herself as Queen Elizabeth and Giles as the hero. Giles glowers. Walking toward the barn, he comes on a coiled snake swallowing a toad, and he stamps on them until his tennis shoes are splattered with blood. Isa tries to catch a glimpse of Rupert Haines. Failing, she offers to show Dodge the greenhouses. They discover that they can talk frankly, like two strangers drawn together by unhappiness and understanding.
The pageant begins again. This time the scene shows the Age of Reason. Once more, Miss La Trobe wrote a play within a play; the characters have names such as Lady Harpy Harraden, Sir Spaniel Lilyliver, Florinda, Valentine, and Sir Smirking Peace-be-with-you-all, a clergyman. After another brief interval, the cast reassembles for a scene from the Victorian Age. Mr. Budge, the publican, is made up as a policeman. Albert is in the hindquarters of a donkey, while the rest of the cast pretends to be on a picnic in 1860. Then Mr. Budge announces that the time is come to pack and be gone. When Isa asks Mrs. Swithin what the Victorians were like, the old woman says that they were like Isa, Dodge, and herself, only dressed differently.
The terrace stage is left bare. Suddenly, the cast comes running from behind the bushes, each holding a mirror in which the men and women in the audience see themselves reflected in self-conscious poses. The time is the present of June, 1939. Swallows are sweeping homeward in the late light. Above them twelve airplanes flying in formation cut across the sky, drowning out all other sounds. The pageant is over; the audience disperses. Mrs. Manresa and Dodge drive away in her car. Miss La Trobe goes on to the inn. There she drinks and sees a vision and tries to find words in which to express it—to make people see once more, as she has tried to do that afternoon.
Darkness falls across the village and the fields. At Pointz Hall, the visitors are gone, and the family is alone. Bartholomew reads the evening paper and drowses in his chair. Mrs. Swithin takes up her Outline of History and turns the pages while she thinks of mastodons and prehistoric birds. At last, she and her brother go off to bed.
Now the true drama of the day is about to begin, ancient as the hills, secret and primitive as the black night outside. Giles and Isa will quarrel, embrace, and sleep. The curtain rises on another scene in the long human drama of enmity, love, and peace.