"And, Dora," Mrs. Nesbitt made a half-hearted attempt to placate her conscience, "I beg you not to make Herbert unhappy."
"Mother dear, when you see Herbert, please beg him not to make me unhappy."
"Does he?" Mrs. Nesbitt demanded, all the mother in her ready to do battle.
"No more or less than I do him. You can't expect to live in perfect peace with anybody."
This is a lovely book, although perhaps it starts a little slowly. On the first page we meet William Nesbitt as he walks home from work, and perceive immediately how pleasant and likable he is. A successful business man living in Radstowe, an ex-seaman, a man conscious of beauty and of order. But perhaps his most important quality, at least for the story that follows, is revealed in a trivial incident when he notices a little iron gate loose on its hinges. Despite the fact that he likes things working properly, and for his own enjoyment of order he would like the owner to fix it, he does not intervene. He recognises that it is someone else's business, they do not need to do what suits him.
It is a quality that his wife Kate does not possess. She seems to picture herself as family matriarch; she knows what every member of her family should be doing and she tells them. Even worse, she believes that they should tailor their lives and their plans to her benefit. If anyone puts their own interests above hers she labels them selfish. She does not recognise this difference between herself and her husband, as she is not self aware. But William perceives it and through his droll little comments the reader's attention is drawn to her lack of awareness of her impotence, and this pathetic belief she has in her own authority.
William and Kate are the parents of five children, four married and one still at home observing the others, and concluding that marriage is not for her. The core of this story is a comparison of these two individuals and how this fundamental difference between them impacts on their relationships with their children.They share the same set of worries, the same concern for their children's welfare, and the same sense of uneasiness that comes from being a parent, but the difference is in how they respond. William is concerned with his childrens' experience of life, while is wife is concerned primarily with her own. He can give them liberty but she cannot. However there is no suggestion that he is a perfect parent, as he has his favourites, and one of his daughters violates his sense of beauty, so that he seems to not even like her.
All this takes place within a novel which reflects on the experience of married life, and the unexpressed reality of even the happiest marriages. William and Kate have a successful marriage, and have been apparently happily married for years, and yet there are times when she seems a stranger to him. And he is aware that by choosing and sticking with her there are things that he desired which have been foregone. None of the marriages in this book are idealised. It is emphasised repeatedly that love, whether for a child or a partner, does not inevitably bring either security and happiness.
But the strength of this novel is in the characterisation of William, and when I finally put down this book I wondered if there was ever a real father as wise, perceptive and wonderful as this one. It offered a blueprint for a different and superior approach to parenting, and considerable food for thought.
Simon's review of William
Darlene's review of William
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