A good marriage story is hard to find — at least in fiction, if not in life. This notion still holds the power to surprise me, since in my experience as a reader and an observer of life, people are drawn to depictions of successful relationships, even when they suspect a greater degree of plausibility in troubled ones.
As a fiction writer, I have found that the novel can deal equally well with the troubles that crop up in the most placid lives and the illusory peace pursued in the most turbulent. Taken from the right angle, a portrait of a happy marriage may throw light not only on individual human flourishing but on questions of justice, peace and prosperity within a society.
Sheila Kaye-Smith’s 1923 novel, The End of the House of Alard, accomplishes all these ends at once. Her story’s wide arc umbrellas at least four disastrous marriages yet holds out a convincing portrayal of potential contentment — though one that implies certain sacrifices.
The novel established Kaye-Smith as a bestselling author. Available now from CUA Press as part of a series that brings attention to underappreciated works by the women of the 20th-century Catholic literary revival, it contains hints of its author’s conversion to Catholicism in 1929 as well as of her contented marriage in 1924 to an Anglican clergyman, who would later give up his ministry to join her in crossing the Tiber. The novel’s title may seem to give away the game — that rare case where judging a book by its cover might be justified. Yet as with many well-told stories, its resonance lies not in knowing what happens on the last page but in discovering how it happens, and why.
The setting is England just after World War I, where like many other landed gentry the Alard family is struggling to keep its sprawling estate. (It scarcely counts as a spoiler to say that they will not be able to do so.) Though Sir John, the paterfamilias, is offered solutions, he refuses to compromise. The family eats badly prepared food off its porcelain and silver, dresses in formal clothes and endures mutual ironic sniping and snappishness, even as its members cannot — or will not — muster the means to repair their tenants’ dilapidated farms and houses.
Some of Sir John’s grown children accept the contradictions of this status quo and do everything in their power to maintain it. Others are understandably disgusted. His supporters include Doris, a spinster with a severe case of Stockholm syndrome; Mary, abandoned by her husband; George, an Anglican priest trying to square his family’s “burden” with the demands of the Gospel; and Peter, the heir, desperate to preserve what he thinks of as “things that last” — land, buildings, and the Alard tradition, as presenced by the generations of ancestors in the family crypt.
Standing in opposition are Gervase, a younger brother successful in business, and Jenny, a younger sister who has fallen in love with a well-to-do yeoman farmer, Ben Godfrey. Gervase lacks his elder brothers’ elite education; Jenny has been similarly neglected by her preoccupied parents and older siblings. Both — Jenny through her marriage outside her class, Gervase by a still more unexpected path — challenge the Alards’ superficial assumptions about the meanings of honor, custom and stability. Their questions about convention, particularly its standards of social and relational behavior, are characteristic of modernity even as they themselves seek the sources of a deeper tradition in their way of life.
As characters who break with Victorian convention, Gervase and Jenny most deeply honor the truths at the heart of Kaye-Smith’s vision of English tradition, a tradition that, she implicitly argues, is deeply consonant with Catholic understandings of human equality and equal dignity across lines of class and gender, by contrast with the rigidly hierarchical and frequently devaluing conventions of Victorian socioeconomic stratification.
Those of the characters who cling to those conventions’ outward forms, rather than to the deeper tradition’s inner spirit, are depicted as alienated and fragmented, with tragic consequences. The novel’s worst fate falls to Peter, who for the sake of the Alard estate refuses to marry Stella, the poorer woman he really loves, in favor of a more advantageous acquaintance. Wealthy, pretty, sophisticated and clever, Peter’s wife, Vera, takes her secular-Jewish family’s traditions as the measure of right thinking and reacts to Peter’s country-squire ways with a mixture of indulgent bemusement and tender scorn.
Peter’s marriage to Vera is faithful and fertile, and as such — as her name hints — it is a true marriage, despite its conventional pragmatism. All the same, it represents an error. Peter never makes a clean break with Stella, never quite loosens his hold on her. In short, “his heart is not in” his marriage: Kaye-Smith ploughs up the truth underlying this cliché to expose the stone in the soil that prevents Peter’s commitment to Vera from taking root.
That their marriage fails seems to be due less to what Kaye-Smith would have called the “disparity of cult” between the two spouses than to their immersion in worldly concerns. Both Peter and Vera are divided from their own and each other’s inner lives, as from the common roots of their diverging belief systems. Neither takes religious devotion seriously, nor does either invest in the kind of practical support of their tenants that might justify their own material privilege.
Vera and Peter conceive of their priorities, even on the pragmatic level, in conflicting ways. While Peter idealizes their country house, Starvecrow, as a place more like Jenny’s new home — a prosperous farm capable of offering “the peace which follows daring” — Vera insists on making it a stylish showplace, which is what she thinks Peter wants. Instead of “the home of loving hearts” joined in common endeavor, Starvecrow becomes “just a place where an unhappy man and woman lived, desiring, fleeing, mistrusting, failing each other.”
Tragically, Peter ends up scapegoating his wife’s religion and their newborn daughter’s life for this disharmony, though his own sins of insincerity, idolatry, emotional infidelity and overt antisemitism far outweigh Vera’s faults. Despite her shallowness, Vera remains “a good mother” and a sincere, single-hearted if unhappy spouse — a sympathetic character — in ways Peter finds impossible to reciprocate.
Alard most fully portrays equal dignity between spouses in the marriage of Jenny Alard and Ben Godfrey. Class inequality aside — and Kaye-Smith shows the relative irrelevance of class to characters whose “tastes and habits,” loves and goals, are closely compatible — their love serves as a sign of unshakable unity. Ben’s yeoman traditions of honor and virtue, to which the Alards pay lip service but dishonor in practice, give the couple a common meeting ground, though, as Kaye-Smith tells us, “there were other things that were hard, and [Jenny] was too clearheaded not to acknowledge the difficulties.”
Jenny and Ben’s hardworking contentment with their modest means, embracing a life full of challenge and labor, serves as a practical reproof to the pride, idolatries and self-seekings that ruin the novel’s other marriages. And only in the context of all his siblings’ fates do the choices of Gervase display their fullest meaning, not revealed until the novel’s quasi-apocalyptic conclusion.
Over above shades of implicit judgment, Kaye-Smith’s narration maintains a warm patience with its characters’ inner lives, desires and longings. It saves its satire for their habits of conspicuous consumption, which are inflated by custom and opportunism beyond the bounds of what is natural, necessary or just. In the house of Alard, only those characters who turn their backs on luxury and their faces toward self-giving forms of love find redemption.