Gentlemen in England depicts a post-Darwinian Britain which has lost its faith in a Supreme Being fully in control of His created universe. This loss is exemplified most dramatically in the lives of the geologist Horace Nettleship and the painter Timothy Lupton, but it is just as true of Charlotte Nettleship’s life.
Through his geological research, Horace, the unhappy atheist, has helped “shed the last vestiges of credence in Archbishop Ussher’s theory that the world had been fashioned at a precise date in 4004 b.c.e.” His speciality is volcanoes, but he confines his potency to his scholarship. An aunt “had told him at a formative age that it was injurious to the constitution if one’s back touched a chair,” hence he must never relax his guard or he might fall into a genuine and thus “improper” relationship with others.
Charlotte and Horace can find nothing to talk about for fifteen years, and when Nettleship eventually uncovers Charlotte’s buoyant but misspent desire for Timothy Lupton, he assaults her in an attempt at self-affirmation. Actions speak louder than words, and, in this case, such actions solemnly ratify Horace’s public break from faith of any sort. Lupton, who seemingly had no faith to lose, is apparently disgusted by Charlotte’s innocence in all this; the novel’s narrator comments, “only innocents commit adultery; of all sins it is the one which suggests the most optimistic capacity to alter the status quo. She actually thought her life could be improved!”
The result of this pervasive human apostasy is the death of marriage and the demise of the family as a stabilizing institution in society. Charlotte comes to represent a generation of daughters, mothers, and wives who lived lives of quiet desperation in touch with the world, if at all, only through their fathers, husbands, or children. She reminds herself, “We must make our pleasures at home,” and thereby resigns herself to a hollow, shadowy existence on the periphery of human life.