Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1026
When Tom Wilcher, a seventy-one-year-old lawyer and the owner of Tolbrook Manor, suffered a heart attack, his niece Ann, a doctor, came down to his home at Tolbrook to take care of him. Ann was the daughter of Edward, Tom’s oldest brother and a liberal politician in the early years of the twentieth century. Ann was willing to take care of the old man because the family felt that Tom should be kept away from Sara Monday, his old housekeeper.
While working for Tom some time before, Sara had stolen some of his possessions and the family had sent her to jail. Tom, however, had never regarded Sara’s action as criminal and wanted her found when she was released. He realized that she never had stolen things actually in use but only old relics stored in the attic; he also was aware that she really cared for old things. He revered Sara as an example of the past, as a lover of the old, humane, settled life rapidly giving way to the new society made of textbooks and technology. Tom would have gone to Sara if Ann had not kept a constant close watch over him.
Tom’s nephew, Robert, visited him at Tolbrook and soon fell in love with Ann. Robert was the son of Tom’s wild sister, Lucy, and Puggy Brown, a hypocritical preacher of the Benjamites (an evangelical religious sect), with whom Lucy had run away. Puggy Brown had been unfaithful to Lucy, although she had relinquished family and position for him, because he claimed that God had told him that he should commit adultery with another of his followers. Unlike either parent, young Robert wanted to become a farmer. The agricultural possibilities of Tolbrook fascinated him, and he soon got to work, married Ann, and became a successful farmer. Much to Tom’s horror, he kept his new threshing machine in the famous and beautiful living room at Tolbrook.
Tom had never been interested in farming. He had wanted to follow a religious career, but because his older brother, Edward the politician, had shown so little interest in the family property, Tom had felt obliged to become a lawyer and handle the family affairs and property. His reverence for the past had caused him to follow a career that did not interest him. Despite his objections to Robert’s new scientific methods of agriculture, he was happy when he saw his nephew taking a deep interest in the land. Shortly after their marriage, Ann and Robert had a son, named after her father, but called Jan.
Living in his memories, Tom constantly tried to illustrate the value of the past to Ann and Robert. Having sacrificed his own career in order to keep his family home and property, he lived in terms of his old affections. He also had been the family messenger, running after Lucy when she had eloped with Puggy Brown and following along after Edward’s mistress, Julie Eeles. Julie Eeles had been a graceful, although not very talented, actress. After Edward left her because she could not help his political career, Tom rather inherited her and she became his mistress. Tom, in effect, had always tidied up after his more striking brother and sister.
Another of Tom’s brothers, Bill, was a more settled individual. A stolid military man, Bill had married devoted Amy Sprott. They had two children, Loftus and John. As a boy, John had been Tom’s favorite nephew, but during World War I, John became restless and cynical. After the war, he no longer seemed to care about the family or about any of the concerns for righteous life he had shared with Tom. With slack indifference, John became a car salesman and married a woman who constantly deceived him with other men. After a while, he seemed uninterested in living, and one day, he was run over in the street and killed. John’s death left Ann and Robert the only relatives for whom Tom had any concern.
After a time, Robert left Ann for a farm girl named Molly. Tom was depressed about the way the present generation of his family was turning out. He felt strongly that the old Victorian virtues, the old allegiance to religion, had made people happier than they were today. Nevertheless, he could not hold this point of view strongly, for his own generation had also led unhappy and unfortunate lives. Lucy’s evangelist husband was untrue to her, and she, although still charming, had lived a miserable existence; Edward had finally married the woman who became Ann’s mother, but she had left him when his political career failed. Despite his charm and intelligence, Edward had never really achieved anything. More and more, Tom came to feel that the only person who had really understood and appreciated him was Sara Monday (he often referred to her as Sara Jimson, for he was under the assumption that she had been married to the painter, Gulley Jimson). He was still determined to find her and marry her.
Although Ann and Robert were reconciled to each other (they established a household that included Robert’s farm girl), Tom escaped from them and went to London to find Sara. There he discovered that she was living with Fred, a man considerably younger than she. Sara, however, was no longer a woman devoted to Tom and to his feelings toward the past. She was not as he had imagined her, for she had become coarse, materialistic, and interested only in herself.
When Tom suffered another and more serious heart attack, Sara called Ann and Robert, who came quickly and took the old man back to the security of Tolbrook. In his last few days, Tom realized that the attempt to find and marry Sara had been a ridiculous gesture. He kept wondering to which of his descendants he should leave his money and property. He pondered about how his family, his values, and his home might be most appreciated by a new generation with other concerns and values. Concerned with these matters, he died without leaving a will.
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