Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 653
The Widower’s Son is a three-part novel which spans the lifetime of two professional soldiers. Charlie Scorton, the widower of the title, serves for twenty-four years in the Royal Artillery, rises to the rank of sergeant, and is on active service during World War I. His son, William Scorton, serves in World War II and achieves the rank of colonel.
Part 1 starts with a tightly written account of Charlie’s career. Born in Ashfield, a small industrial town near Nottingham, he follows in his father’s footsteps as a miner but enlists in the army when his best friend is killed in a pit accident. His father angrily disowns him, and his mother dies while he is serving, after the war, in India. After his discharge and the birth of his son, his wife dies also.
Charlie brings the boy up in his own image. While other boys are out to play, William is being put through his paces by his father, who teaches him map reading, orienteering, and tactics and employs a private tutor to coach him in his schoolwork. At fourteen, William wins a scholarship to a military college. On leave, he has his first sexual experience, with a girl he meets in the street, before returning home to show off his uniform to his father.
At the beginning of part 2, William has completed a wartime course at an officer cadet training school and has been promoted to captain. In a grimly realistic account of the British army’s retreat from the advancing Germans on the European battlefields, William and his battle-seasoned batman, Harold Oxton, become isolated from the rest of the unit and make their way, under heavy bombardment, to the embarkation port of Dunkirk.
Part 3, the major section of the novel, deals with the turbulent relationship between William, now a colonel, and Georgina Woods, the daughter of Brigadier “Jacko” Woods. Georgina has recently broken off a passionate affair with a married man and has married William on the rebound. The early years of their marriage are cemented by their sexual compatibility and their shared roots in army life. After a miscarriage, however, Georgina becomes increasingly restless, and when William leaves the army, the social differences between them loom large. They have frequent quarrels, which lead to heightened sexual activity and temporary reconciliation.
Through a chance meeting with Albert Monk, owner of an entertainment and indoor sports center, William becomes the manager of the center, which he runs with the precision and tactical skill of a military exercise. He installs his former batman Oxton as doorman and trains him as his deputy. The work offends Georgina’s upper-class sensibilities, and their marriage goes from bad to worse.
William, devastated when he discovers that Georgina has resumed her affair with her former lover, attacks her physically. In one of a series of increasingly bizarre confrontations, he humiliates her by arriving late at one of her dinner parties and appearing before her guests ludicrously decked out in her underwear. Later, he smears the words “Smash Matrimony” in red paint all over their bedroom walls. Georgina fails to notice that he has cut his wrists and that some of the writing is in blood.
Broken-spirited and ill, with Georgina gone and his job handed over to Oxton, William has a feverish hallucination in which the German bombers of his battlefield experience are transformed into flying pterodactyls—a lurid surreal version of the account of actual bombardment in part 2.
When he eventually pulls himself together, he tosses all of his possessions into his car and heads for Ashfield, to discover that his father is terminally ill. Charlie’s death is William’s catharsis. The final two pages of the novel encapsulate an unexpected happy ending. William trains as a teacher, marries a colleague, rears a family, and, at the age of sixty, is at last able to lead a full and rewarding life.
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