As a writer, Christopher Tilghman has concerned himself with the pressures exerted by time and place upon families. The stories in his collection, In A Father’s Place (1990), deal primarily with the intricacies of family life and with the responsibilities assumed by—or often forced upon—family members. In Mason’s Retreat (1996), Tilghman takes up this familial theme again but, in turning to the novel form, allows himself greater textual room in which to explore that theme and its variations.
The story of the novel concerns the Mason family—Edward and Edith, and their two sons Sebastien and Simon—all of them born Americans, all of them expatriated to England as a result of Edward’s business interests. The novel’s action is set primarily between the years 1936 and 1939: The historical crucible of pre-World War II shapes significantly the actions of the Mason family. Tilghman frames his novel, however, within the narrative perspective of a later Mason: Harry Mason, the only son of Simon. It is Harry Mason who “imagines” the novel’s action and the playing-out of the family—his family’s— drama. He does so from the perspective of the 1990’s, and with the knowledge (though perhaps not the full and perfect knowledge) of how that story has unwound through the years. Thus, Tilghman plays with the technical elements of his novel’s narrative, forcing his reader to consider the reason for Harry’s fictional being.
The Masons are a family under pressure. Edward Mason is a large forty-year-old man with a large voice and a large vision. His industrial world has weakened, however, to the point where he must fall back upon the aid of his wife’s family, who regard their son-in-law as a dreamer. The Great Depression has taken its toll on his manufacturing concerns in England and so, after a fourteen-year residence abroad, Edward packs his family back to America and back to the family estate on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. In one way, then, the novel’s title suggests more than one sort of retreat: The Masons are, in fact, in retreat from the realities of their reduced financial circumstance.
They are also in retreat from the realities of their familial situation. The fifteen-year-old marriage between Edward and Edith (age thirty-four in 1936) has grown tense, damaged to some extent by Edward’s sexual dalliances. Even greater damage, however, comes from the ways in which the family itself has separated along certain lines of loyalty; much like the world of pre-World War II Europe, the world of the Mason family has become an arrangement of alliances—emotional alliances—that test the limits of each member’s love. By their very natures, Edward and the six-year-old Simon are drawn together, as are Edith and the thirteen-year-old Sebastien; the bonds are intense, especially that between mother and elder son. Indeed, it is the intensity of this relationship that makes so much of the novel’s action problematic. Tilghman plays upon the paired themes of father-son and mother-son relations here, examining the ways in which families resolve (or fail to resolve) the imbalances of familial love.
Nor is the family helped by the fact that the world they come to—the world of America and the world of Maryland’s Chesapeake Bay—is a world in social and historical transition. Another of Tilghman’s dominant themes in this novel is the very Jamesian concern with America and the American; much like Henry James, Tilghman explores the complexity of the expatriated American returning to a place that might be called “home”—or to one of the places that might be called home. Certainly, a large part of the familial conflict in Mason’s Retreat is connected to the versions of home and of home-place that operate in the world of the Masons. For Edward and young Simon, England and Manchester are home; for Edith and Sebastien, a return to America and to the Mason estate represent a chance at finding permanence, at establishing a true sense of place. This conflict becomes central in the novel, as each member of the family works to lay claim to a specific geography of home. At the same time, though, Edward does see this pilgrimage to America as a chance at a new start; his vision of America as a “New World” recapitulates the traditional, European vision of America as a land of second chances, a virgin territory waiting to be capitalized. It is this impulse to profit which will catalyze the novel’s climax.
The precise geography to which the Masons return—Mason’s Retreat—is now a ruin, a dilapidated emblem of the family’s decline over time. The farm is also a symbol of the changed and changing South to which it historically belongs. What once was a thriving farm-plantation has slipped into dramatic decline:
Long strips of Chinese wallpaper hung off the walls in spirals as if left over from a gay party. An animal—not a mouse or a rat, but something large, like a fox or a dog—had died long ago in the center of the hall, leaving only the black stain of its dried juices and a moldy skeleton. In the...
(The entire section is 2097 words.)