Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

Two themes prevail, that of love versus calculation, or social manipulation, and the twilight of a noble aristocracy. The first is evident in the lives of Frederick and Julia, Arthur and Marian, Hugo and Lucinda, Lucinda and Pat, Tony and Lucinda, Stephen and Heather, and others. No clear point is made regarding the desirability or success of love versus calculation in these many matches. Love is certainly to be desired, yet idealistic sentiments rarely meet with material reward. Paul and Stephen are the clearest examples in this regard. Lucinda, Frederick, and Julia, on the other hand, seem to make marriage by calculation work. Perhaps Arthur and Marian have the best of both worlds, although Boyd hardly portrays theirs as the ideal relationship.

The second theme is detailed in the threefold attack on the traditional English aristocracy—first by the pretenders in Melbourne society, who seek legitimacy by way of their daughters and favorable marriages; second by Mr. Straker and his ilk, who simply bully their way into old manor houses by force of wealth and industrial clout; and third by the ravages of modern warfare, which raise the horrors of destruction to an industrial level.

Two images serve to summarize the decline of the aristocracy. A parade of characters marches past a portrait of the first Earl of Wendale, which hangs in Lucinda’s home. None can compare with the first Earl for his look of self-assurance, direction, and nobility, the reader is told. So disappointed is Lucinda at one stage that she has the portrait placed in storage. The other image of the aristocracy’s decline consists in the fate of two antique vases, which for years occupied a privileged position in Frederick Vane’s home as symbols of culture and nobility. Long treated as priceless, they are disposed of at auction after Frederick’s death, where they fetch a paltry sum.