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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1119

The Fountain Overflows concerns the Aubrey family and their adventures and misfortunes as the four Aubrey children grow up. One of these children, Rose, is the narrator, and through her eyes the reader sees the events that affect the family, events as varied as a visitation by a poltergeist, murder,...

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The Fountain Overflows concerns the Aubrey family and their adventures and misfortunes as the four Aubrey children grow up. One of these children, Rose, is the narrator, and through her eyes the reader sees the events that affect the family, events as varied as a visitation by a poltergeist, murder, and poverty. Her childhood is not a typical one, and the difference can be attributed to her parents, the fountain that overflows, providing the children with a source of energy and an abundance of experiences.

Her handsome and eccentric father, Piers, is a newspaper editor and occasionally writes persuasive political tracts. Unfortunately, he can become so involved with his concern for justice that he antagonizes his friends and benefactors and ignores his family. At other times, however, he devotes many hours to carving intricate wooden toys for the children. Yet his compulsive gambling on the stock exchange has driven his family into poverty. Rose’s mother, Clare, gave up a promising career as a concert pianist when she married and began rearing a family. She notices keenly her husband’s lack of attention to the details of living. Being constantly in debt, dealing with bill collectors, and tolerating her husband’s infidelity, she has worried herself into a scarecrow of her former appearance, now “thin and wild-looking and badly dressed.” Because of her interest in music, however, she is able to provide her children, except for Rose’s older sister Cordelia, with a strong base on which to develop.

At the beginning of the novel, the family, previously subjected to sudden shifts in locale brought on by Piers’s inability to get along with his superiors and his colleagues, is in Scotland contemplating yet another move, this time to London. Since it is summer, though, the children and Clare stay on a Scottish farm while Piers begins his job as an editor for a small paper in London and prepares for their arrival. Farm life is wholesome and delightful for the children, but Clare is worried, as well she might be. Piers neglects to write, she discovers that he has sold her prized antique furniture, and as the summer draws to a close, she does not know the address of the London house to which she and the children must move.

London proves to be their home for several years as the children approach adolescence. Rose and her twin sister, Mary, planning to be concert pianists, are taught music by their mother. It is understood that they have inherited their mother’s talent. Unfortunately, Cordelia has not, but she persists in playing the violin. Unlike Rose and Mary, Cordelia suffers under her family’s poverty. She practices the violin desperately because she sees it as a means to a more comfortable future. Her desire to be a famous musician is encouraged by Miss Beevor, her music teacher at school, who idolizes her and is unaware of Cordelia’s lack of musicality. Miss Beevor suggests that Cordelia give paid performances, an idea which horrifies Clare, but she is helpless to prevent it. Should Clare refuse to allow it, Cordelia would believe that she had been cruelly used.

There are two additional families which figure in the novel. One of these families consists of Constance, Clare’s childhood friend; her husband, Clare’s cousin Jock; and their daughter Rosamund, about the age of Rose and Mary. Since Constance also lives in London, Clare wants to reestablish their previously close relationship, but Constance hesitates. Clare, taking the initiative, visits, discovering Constance’s house to be inhabited by a poltergeist. Perhaps the happenings are real, perhaps they are tricks perpetrated by Jock, a lout despite his being Clare’s relative, or perhaps Rose (being a young girl) perceives ordinary occurrences as extraordinary. As Rose reports, however, the strange happenings cease with Clare and Rose’s visit. Constance and Clare renew their friendship, and the Aubrey children have found an understanding companion in Rosamund.

There is also the Phillips family, whose daughter Nancy is Cordelia’s classmate. Wealthy though the Phillipses are, their money does not prevent tragedy. The mother, Queenie Phillips, is accused of poisoning her husband. To provide Nancy and her Aunt Lily a haven away from the gossip of their neighbors, the Aubreys take them in. Nancy soon goes to live with her father’s brother, but Aunt Lily remains throughout the trial of Queenie. Since the judge assumes Queenie’s guilt, the trial is a farce. Because of the obvious prejudice, Piers rightly thinks that he can win Queenie a reprieve. Risking going to jail himself, he argues the point in an as-yet-undistributed pamphlet. The government, fearing the public reaction should the pamphlet be released, commutes the death sentence.

After the trial, a period of calm ensues for the Aubrey family, but eventually it is disrupted by Piers’s new project, writing a book. Either the subject of the book or the act of writing it throws him into despair. His situation deteriorates, until one day he does not recognize his wife when he passes her on the street, Soon after, he abruptly abandons his family, leaving only a note. Even though he was eccentric and often estranged from the family, his absence is deeply felt. Rose comments, “He had apparently given us more than we knew, for now we felt bitterly cold.” Clare’s prime concern, however, is with her husband’s well-being. Discovering that a hidden wall cabinet has been opened, she is somewhat relieved, hoping that whatever Piers took is valuable.

Her children’s comfort is assured, for unknown to anyone, Clare has all along provided for them in case of a disaster: The family portraits, long thought to be fakes, are real, including the one by Thomas Gainsborough. The sale of the portraits will provide for the needs of the children until they are established in their careers. It is already decided that Rose and Mary are to be musicians, and Richard Quin, the youngest, will also go in that direction, but Cordelia is more difficult, since she insists that she is a musician when she is not. A crisis is precipitated when the unfortunate Miss Beevor takes her to a cruel but famous teacher who reveals the truth. Cordelia, devastated, tries to poison herself. Through the careful ministrations of Rosamund, who plans to become a nurse, Cordelia gradually puts music aside, takes an interest in sewing, and seems to be headed for marriage. The conclusion mirrors the hope that Rose has had throughout. As she earlier remarked, “we . . . believed that whatever happened we would be all right. Certainly we would be all right. But it might take some time before we could get things settled.”

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