Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1111
Tom Brangwen is descended from a long line of small landholders who had owned Marsh Farm in Nottinghamshire for many generations. Tom is a man of the soil, and he lives alone on his farm with only an old woman, as company and as a housekeeper. Then a Polish widow, Lydia Lensky, becomes the housekeeper of the vicar of the local church. She brings her small daughter, Anna, with her. One evening a few months later, Tom finds the courage to present the widow with a bouquet of daffodils in the vicar’s kitchen and to ask her to be his wife.
Judged by the standards of the world, their marriage is a satisfactory one. They have two sons, and Tom is kind to his stepdaughter. Knowing his stepdaughter, however, is easier for him than knowing Lydia. That they are of different nationalities, cultures, and even languages keeps them from ever becoming intellectually intimate with each other. There are times when one or both feels that their marriage is not what it should be and that they are not fulfilling the obligations imposed upon them by their marriage. On one occasion, Lydia even suggests to her husband that he needs another woman.
Little Anna is a haughty young girl who spends many hours imagining herself a great lady or even a queen. In her eighteenth year, a nephew of Tom comes to work in the lace factory in the nearby village of Ilkeston. He is only twenty years old, and the Brangwens at Marsh Farm look after him and make him welcome in their home.
Anna and young Will fall in love, with a naïve, touching affection for each other. When they soon announce to Tom and Lydia that they wish to be married, Tom leases a home for them in the village and gives them a present of twenty-five hundred pounds so they can manage financially, given Will’s small salary.
The wedding is celebrated with rural pomp and hilarity. After the ceremony, the newly married couple spends two weeks alone in their cottage, ignoring the world and existing only for themselves. Anna is the first to come back to the world of reality. Her decision to give a tea party both bewilders and angers her husband, who has not yet realized that they cannot continue to live only for and by themselves. It takes him almost a lifetime to come to that realization.
Shortly after the marriage, Anna becomes pregnant, and the arrival of the child brings to Will the added shock that his wife is more a mother than she is a married lover. Each year, a new baby comes between Will and Anna. The oldest is Ursula, who remains her father’s favorite. The love that Will wishes to give his wife is given to Ursula, for Anna refuses to have anything to do with him when she is expecting another child, and she is not happy unless she is pregnant.
In the second year of his marriage, Will tries to rebel. He meets a young woman at the theater and afterward takes her out for supper and a walk. After this incident, the intimate life of Will and Anna gains in passion, enough to carry Will through the daytime when he is not needed in the house until the night when he can rule his wife. Gradually, he becomes free in his own mind from Anna’s domination.
Because Ursula is her father’s favorite child, she is sent to high school, a rare privilege for a girl of her circumstances in the last decade of the nineteenth century. She...
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drinks up knowledge in her study of Latin, French, and algebra. Before she finishes her studies, however, her academic interests are divided by her interest in a young man, the son of a Polish friend of her grandmother. Young, blond Anton Skrebensky, a lieutenant in the British army, is introduced in the Brangwen home, and during a month’s leave, he falls in love with Ursula, who is already in love with him. On his next leave, however, he becomes afraid of her because her love is too possessive.
After finishing high school, Ursula takes an examination to enter the university. Even though she passes the exam, she decides to teach school for a time, for she wants to accumulate money to carry her through her education without being a burden to her parents. Anna and Will are furious when she broaches the subject of leaving home. They compromise with her, however, by securing for her a position in a school in Ilkeston. Ursula spends two friendless, ill-paid, and thankless years teaching at the village elementary school. At the end of that time, she is more than ready to continue her education. She decides to become a botanist, for in botany she feels she is doing and learning for herself things that have an absolute truth.
One day, after the end of the Boer War, Ursula receives a letter from Anton, who writes that he wishes to see her again while he is in England on leave. Within a week, he arrives in Nottingham to visit her at school. Their love for each other is rekindled with greater intensity than they had known six years earlier. During the Easter holidays, they go away for a weekend at a hotel, where they pass as husband and wife. They travel to the Continent as soon as Ursula finishes classes for the summer. Anton increasingly presses for marriage, wanting Ursula to leave England with him when he returns to service in India, but she wants to return to college to earn her degree.
Ursula so neglects her studies during this time that she fails the final examinations for her degree. She studies all summer before taking them again, but fails again. Anton thereupon urges her to marry him immediately. In India, he insists, her degree will mean nothing anyway. One evening, at a house party, they realize that there is something wrong in their mating and that they cannot agree enough to make a successful marriage. They leave the party separately. A few weeks later, Anton leaves for India as the husband of his regimental commander’s daughter.
Ursula then learns that she is pregnant. Not knowing that Anton is now married, she writes to him and promises to be a good wife if he still wishes to marry her. Before his answer comes from India, Ursula contracts pneumonia and loses the child. One day, as she is convalescing, she observes a rainbow in the sky. She hopes that it is the promise of better times to come.