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.