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Last Updated on January 11, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1573

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First published: 1907

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Social criticism

Time of work: Early twentieth century

Locale: England

Principal Characters:

George Pendyce, the heir to Worsted Skeynes

Mrs. Helen Bellew, a young woman, who had separated from her husband

Horace Pendyce, George’s father

Margery Pendyce, his mother

The Reverend Hussell Barter, the rector at Worsted Skeynes

Gregory Vigil, Mrs. Bellew’s guardian

Captain Bellew, her husband

Mr. Paramor, the family lawyer

The Story:

In the fall of 1891, Horace Pendyce invited several people to Worsted Skeynes, his country estate, for a hunt. Little had been changed at Worsted Skeynes since the time of Mr. Pendyce’s great-great-great-grandfather. Mr. Pendyce, as head of the house, naturally took a conservative political stand and expected each member of his family to follow suit.

Included in the party for the hunt was George Pendyce, the oldest son of Horace and Margery Pendyce, who now spent most of his time in London and who had recently become interested enough in racing to buy his own horse and have him trained for that sport. There was also Mrs. Helen Bellew, a very attractive young woman who had separated from her husband simply because they had grown tired of each other and who, it was being rumored, now encouraged the attentions of George. In the English country society of that time, separation of married couples was still frowned upon and for a lady in such a position to favor at all the attentions of a gentleman was for her to invite criticism. Unfortunately, the young couple were seen kissing passionately at a dance given by Mrs. Pendyce during the week of the hunt. The observer was the Reverend Hussell Barter, rector of the parish of Worsted Skeynes and another member of the party.

Soon after the week of the hunt, Gregory Vigil, cousin of Mrs. Pendyce and guardian of Mrs. Bellew, who was himself in love with his beautiful ward, decided that Helen’s situation was intolerable and had gone on quite long enough. After consulting Mrs. Pendyce on the matter, he approached his lawyer, Mr. Paramor, on the subject of divorce. Paramor advised against it, however, on the grounds that there must be some very tangible reason for the lady’s wanting a divorce and also because of the fact that such an act was always extremely public and painful, even for the one bringing the action. Helen Bellew was subject to certain charges, unknown to her guardian, because of her growing relationship with George Pendyce.

When Mr. Vigil decided to go on with the action, Mrs. Pendyce took up the matter with the rector without, however, suspecting in the least his strong feelings against both divorce and Mrs. Bellew. Mr. Barter objected, of course, because of what he considered an immoral act, which he himself had witnessed. In his mind, it was the husband, Captain Bellew, who had been wronged, and he felt it his Christian duty to make that gentleman aware of the action that was about to be taken against him. Consequently, Captain Bellew began proceedings before Gregory Vigil had time to do so on behalf of Mrs. Bellew.

In the meantime, George had fallen in love with Mrs. Bellew. He felt he could not live without her, and he was willing to allow his name and reputation to be dirtied in the divorce courts in order that he might then marry the woman. Besides, he had also fallen very heavily into debt through gambling on the horses. This combination of circumstances proved too much for the conservative Mr. Pendyce; no Pendyce had ever been a gambler, and certainly none had ever been involved in a divorce suit. George had finally lost all his money and was forced to sell his horse to pay his debts; papers also had been served naming him corespondent in the case of Bellew vs. Bellew. At this time, Mr. Pendyce resolved to take action. Rather than see the estate and heritage of the family fall into the hands of one so irresponsible, he decided to disinherit George unless his son would promise never to see the woman again. If George would agree to this plan, Mr. Pendyce had Captain Bellew’s word that he would drop the divorce proceedings, but George refused.

Mrs. Pendyce, however, would not consent to her husband’s action. Because of a very tender and somewhat sympathetic feeling for her first-born child, she threatened to leave Mr. Pendyce if he carried out his decision. She was as good as her word. Having a small income of her own, she felt that she could support herself and George with some measure of comfort if not with the luxury they had known at Worsted Skeynes. Her first steps were to go to London, find George, and attempt to get him to fulfill his father’s demands. When this effort failed, she visited Helen Bellew to see if she would give up George. By this time, Mrs. Bellew was as tired of George as she had been of her husband, and she was quite willing—in fact, she desired—never to see George again.

Meanwhile, Mr. Pendyce was highly upset by his wife’s desertion; such an act was very much out of keeping with the tradition in which he lived. He was, therefore, quite relieved to see her when she returned to their home. Horace Pendyce, however, was far too proud a man to write to Captain Bellew and acknowledge that his son had been discarded in the same way that the captain himself had been; thus, the danger of divorce proceedings, with the subsequent harm to the family reputation, was as great as ever. Again it was Mrs. Pendyce, only an insignificant part of the social system as Mr. Pendyce thought of it, who was able to solve the problem. She took it upon herself to visit Captain Bellew and ask him to drop proceedings. Because he had instituted the whole action as a kind of self-defense and because he was greatly impressed by a real lady, he agreed to do so. The Pendyce name, the country house, and the whole system of society, therefore, were again preserved.

Critical Evaluation:

John Galsworthy is a novelist who grew in stature between the era of Victorian certainties and the era of post-World War I despair and doubts. Once conflicts in his personal life were resolved, he began to portray with increasing vigor in his fiction those segments of the British upper classes which he felt were most in need of constructive criticism. In the preface to THE COUNTRY HOUSE, Galsworthy remarks that birth into the upper class or the aristocracy is no reason for complacency. At the same time, he discounts those who mistake his attitude for that of a revolutionary. In fact, he argues that by taking seriously the criticisms he offers, radical change can be rendered unnecessary.

Before the two world wars had shaken the institutions of the world to the breaking point, the English country house was symbolic of many of the strongest traditions of the aristocracy. In this novel, readers see what happens when one such house is threatened with disrepute and, perhaps, eventual destruction because of the careless attitude of one of its sons. Galsworthy also gives a vivid account of the prejudices and feelings of English society, including the pettiness of some of its members. Everything, however, remains indestructible and, through the deft handling of one of its more insignificant members, society comes away without even a blemish.

THE COUNTRY HOUSE is a strong novel, especially in its detailed exposure of the pettiness and narrowness of the landed English gentry. Horace Pendyce, for example, is revealed both for what he is and for what he thinks he is. The latter, of course, is the more damaging; and this satirical ingredient, more than the plot, affords the central interest of THE COUNTRY HOUSE.

The plot itself revolves around the elements of money (and inheritance), sexual attraction, family feelings, honor, and the force of outward respectability. Galsworthy successfully maintains action and interest, particularly of a social nature; but since he is so adept at creating a social milieu, a setting of aristocratic manners and mannerisms, the plot which unfolds in that setting carries with it more external interest than internal motive. For example, the characters (including George Pendyce and Mrs. Helen Bellew) are less believable as individuals than as types and are less believable as types than as mechanical figures designed to play a role in a prearranged drama; thus, the motivation of characters, largely external in origin, never seems entirely adequate to the weight of the action demanded of them. The more memorable characters thus tend to be the minor types who embody most strikingly the complacent aristocratic ethos that Galsworthy wishes to expose.

In short, Galsworthy’s characters as individuals lack the depth that grows from interior conflict. The real conflict occurs on the level of the social criticism itself. On this level, Galsworthy’s fundamental attachment to the values of British society as a whole and his desire to criticize and satirize come into conflict, and the conflict is resolved in favor of the established order. Thus, the tension which might have enlivened his characters is dissipated in the reestablishment of the fictional social order; and the old world persists, soon to be shattered in the trenches of a barbaric war.