A Country Gentleman and His Family (1886) – Margaret Oliphant

As tame as the title sounds, this novel by Margaret Oliphant is anything but a light ‘picnic in the park’ type Victorian book. It’s a dark, psychological novel with domestic themes, following the fortunes of two families: a widowed mother and her three grown children, and a widow and her young son. As is common with Mrs. Oliphant’s writing, the novel can seem quite prosy in places, but her keen observations, and her wonderful plot twists, inspire one to see what lies ahead for the interesting and well developed characters.

The story opens with the death of the old country gentleman. After her husband’s death Mrs. Warrender becomes restless and overwhelmed by her mixed emotions i.e. the joy of emancipation and the guilt of not feeling as sorrowful as she ought to during her mourning. Oliphant tackles this sensitive topic with great skill, and I was even side-tracked by my own thoughts and feelings on the subject of bereavement.

Hereafter, the novel essentially follows the lives of the three Warrender siblings: moralistic Minnie, who marries a snobbish clergyman from an old noble family, so an appropriate match really; the naïve Chatty, who is so sweet and innocent I want to marry her myself, and the hugely unlikable and egotistical Theo, who suffers from what can only be described as a borderline personality disorder. Selfish, strict and exacting, Theo Warrender is literally a brute in every sense of the word. Overcome by his jealousy and uncontrollable anger, he systematically bullies a sickly 9 year old boy, his ‘competition’ for Lady Markland’s love. I mean really? Jealous of a child who is close to his mother. Be warned … this novel becomes quite disturbing. I don’t want to spoil the ending, but Lady Markland is eventually ordered to choose between her own son and her deranged lover.

Things are equally tough for our lovely Miss Millie, the third Warrender sibling. Her love affair with Daredevil Dick Cavendish is also fraught with scandal and trouble. Without spoiling the story, we learn that Dick Cavendish has a dark history, and there are some very serious obstacles (just impediments) in the way of their marriage… but does everything turn out well for Minnie and Dick? Well that would be telling!