This is a classic of Scottish literature that many non Scots will not have come across. Actually, a lot of Scots won’t have come across it either. This is most likely because it was only Brown’s second book – he died the year after it was published, and the other was published under a pseudonym. It is generally seen as a rejoinder to the sickly, sentimental fiction known as the Scottish kailyard, popular in the late nineteenth century.
I could perhaps best summarise this book as Lewis Grassic Gibbon meets the Mayor of Casterbridge, to give an idea of what it’s about. It shows rural Scots society in an altogether different light from that of the Kailyard, and I’m sorry to say, it’s a portrait that I still recognise to some degree in contemporary Scots culture – all small minded niggling and ‘ah kent his faither’.
Let’s make no bones about it, the novel is a tragedy, and I’m pushed to find any redeeming features in any of the characters at all. These aren’t noble people with one fatal flaw, these are people flawed from the toes to the tops of their heads.
The ‘hero’ is John Gourlay a carrier in a small mid nineteenth century Ayrshire town. He’s pulled himself up from nothing by dint of hard work and a clever marriage. At the start of the novel he dominates the town and his family. He has made his pride concrete in the construction of his house – the house of the title. But it’s a façade only; inside it’s dirty and ill kept as his wife is no housewife, but sits around all day reading silly novels. This façade is reflected in the façade of the town – all pleasantness on the outside but soiled and rotten to the core, as depicted in the ‘bodies’ – the group of gossiping old men who talk about everyone with a good word to say about none.
Gourlay is brought down by two things – his own ambition which leads him to force his son into an education he neither wants nor can benefit from in desperate competition with a new entrant into the town’s economy. The other is his pride, which refuses to let him come to terms with this new competitor or admit to anyone that he is having business problems. While it is his son John who delivers the final blow, this would not have been possible without Gourlay senior’s earlier actions.
The illnesses suffered by the Gourlay women are symbols of the rottenness at the heart of the family – Janet with her consumption and Mrs Gourlay with, presumably, breast cancer, triggered from where Gourlay hit her. Apart from this, Janet doesn’t have much to do, but Mrs Gourlay is a little more interesting. I wasn’t sure if her smothering if incompetent mothering of John junior was supposed to be yet another symbol of Gourlay senior’s rotten pride (he should have controlled her better) or something else. Her whining sluttishness is nothing if not irritating. But then as I noted earlier, none of these characters is particularly sympathetic.
Not a nice novel, and I didn’t find it a happy read, but illuminating nevertheless.
See also: The House with Green Shutters