Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 908
Squire Harry Headlong differs from the usual Welsh squire in that he, by some means or other, has become interested in books in addition to the common interests of hunting, racing, and drinking. He has journeyed to Oxford and then to London to find the philosophers and men of refined tastes to whom he has been introduced in the world of literature. Having rounded up a group of intellectuals, he invites them to his home in Wales, Headlong Hall, for the Christmas holidays.
Three men form the nucleus of the house party. The first is Mr. Foster, an optimist. To him, everything is working toward a state of perfection, and each advancement in technology, in government, or in society is all for the good. He believes that humanity will ultimately achieve perfection as a result of progress. Mr. Escot, in contrast, sees nothing but deterioration in the world. Where Mr. Foster sees improvement in advances, Escot sees evidence of corruption and evil that will soon reduce the whole human race to wretchedness and slavery. The third man of the trio is Mr. Jenkison, who takes a position exactly in the middle. He believes that the amounts of improvement and deterioration in the world balance each other perfectly and that good and evil will remain forever in equilibrium.
These philosophers, with a large company of other diletantes, descend upon Headlong Hall. Among the lesser guests is a landscape gardener who makes it his sole duty to persuade the squire to have his estate’s grounds changed from a wild tangle of trees and shrubs into a shaved and polished bed of green grass. Mr. Foster thinks that the grounds could be improved, Mr. Escot thinks that any change will be for the worse, and Mr. Jenkison thinks the scenery perfect as it is.
There are ladies present, both young and old, but they do not join in the philosophical discussions. Many of the talks among the men occur at the dinner table after the ladies have retired to another room and as the wine is being liberally poured, for Squire Headlong is aware that the mellowness produced by good burgundy is an incentive to conversation.
The discussions take various turns, all of them dominated by the diametrically opposed views of Foster and Escot and soothed by the healing words of Jenkison. Escot harps constantly on the happiness and moral virtue possessed by the savages of the past, virtue that lessened with each encroachment of civilization. As the savages began to build villages and cities and to develop luxuries, they also began to suffer disease, poverty, oppression, and loss of morality. Foster cannot agree with this thesis. He points to the achievements of civilization in fields other than those of a materialistic nature. William Shakespeare and John Milton, for example, could not have achieved their genius in the primitive life that Escot applauds. Escot, refusing to concede an inch, points to Milton’s suffering, stating also that even if one person profits from so-called advancements, fifty regress because of them. Jenkison offers that there is something to be said on either side of the subject.
Between their learned discussions, the gentlemen spend their time in attempts to fascinate the ladies. Escot was once the suitor of one of the women guests, but he offended her father during an intellectual discussion and fell out of favor. He attempts now to regain his former place in her affection by humoring the father. During these periods of respite, the guests also entertain one another with singing and recitations, the selections being works they themselves have composed.
The squire holds a magnificent ball for his houseguests and all of his neighbors. At the ball, the wine flows freely, so that even Foster and Escot forget some of their differences. Although he disapproves of any but aboriginal dances, Escot dances often with the lady of his choice. Foster, of course, finds the form of modern dance to be the utmost in refinement and an expression of the improved morality of humanity. Jenkison can see points both for and against the custom of dancing.
During the evening, Squire Headlong is reminded by a maiden relative that should he not marry soon there will be no one to carry on the Headlong name, which has been honored for many centuries. As his name implies, the squire is not one to toy with an idea for long once it has entered his mind. Fixing on the lady of his choice in a matter of minutes, he proposes and is accepted. He then arranges three other matches in an equally short time. Foster and Escot are aided in choosing brides and in getting permission from the father of Escot’s beloved. Foster’s bride-to-be is related to the squire, and thus the suit presents no obstacle. Seizing on another man, the squire tells him of the plan and promptly chooses a bride for the hapless individual.
Within a matter of days, the weddings take place. After promising to gather again in August, the guests then disperse. Foster and Escot try to the last to convince each other and the rest that only one philosophy is the true one, but Jenkison does not fall into the trap of either. He is still convinced that there is merit in both of their arguments. Neither is right or wrong; rather, each balances the other, leaving the world in its usual status quo.
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