by George Douglas Brown
The brutish John Gourlay is a merchant in the village of Barbie, envied and resented by the villagers because of his success, which is symbolized in his prestigious house with green shutters. He dominates and bullies his family, in particular his sensitive, gifted but weak son. Ultimately, his refusal to acknowledge the arrival of the railway and to adapt to the increasing industrialization of Ayrshire precipitates murder, suicide, and his family’s tragic downfall.
Almost forgotten now, George Douglas Brown was the illegitimate son of an Ayrshire farmer. He nevertheless earned himself a place at Glasgow University and then won a scholarship to study at Balliol College, Oxford. He died at just 33. His writing has always been contrasted with J.M. Barrie’s more upbeat Scottish stories, but possibly a more relevant comparison is to another contemporary, Thomas Hardy.
The House with the Green Shutters was published in 1901 as the author’s furious response to what he called “sentimental slop” – the representation of Scotland as a cozy rural idyll, popularised by Barrie. There’s a strongly autobiographical element to the story, which mirrors Brown’s own rejection by his father, with the fictional village of Barbie pretty clearly based on his roots in the Ayrshire village of Ochiltree.
Like Hardy’s work, THGS is rooted in a rural background that only intermittently appears benign, and where the invisible weight of local convention is almost a potent extra character. Take, for instance, a scene near the start, where someone is complaining about the haulage monopoly the main character (John Gourlay) has established. Already, village opposition to him is established.
“But that’s very stupid, surely,” said a visitor once, who thought of entering into competition. “It’s cutting off his nose to spite his face! Why is he so anxious to be the only carrier in Barbie that he carries stuff for next to noathing the moment another man tries to work the roads? It’s a daft-like thing to do!”
“To be sure is’t, to be sure is’t! Just the stupeedity o’ spite! Oh, there are times when Gourlay makes little or noathing from the carrying; but then, ye see, it gies him a fine chance to annoy folk! If you ask him to bring ye ocht, ‘Oh,’ he growls, ‘I’ll see if it suits my own convenience.’ And ye have to be content. He has made so much money of late that the pride of him’s not to be endured.”
Gourlay’s character reminds me of Michael Henchard in The Mayor of Casterbridge, which was written 15 years earlier (1886). The sombre trajectory that takes both men from overweening pride to final despair, degradation and death is remarkably similar, down to the collateral damage to their wives and families.
That’s not to say that THGS is grim (though it often is), as there’s a strong vein of energetically sardonic humour running through it. Gourlay is annoyed with his wife for being too lax with their son:-
Gourlay went swiftly to the kitchen from the inner yard. He had stood so long in silence on the step, and his coming was so noiseless, that he surprised a long, thin trollop of a woman, with a long, thin, scraggy neck, seated by the slatternly table, and busy with a frowsy paper-covered volume, over which her head was bent in intent perusal.
“At your novelles?” said he. “Ay, woman; will it be a good story?”
She rose in a nervous flutter when she saw him; yet needlessly shrill in her defence, because she was angry at detection.
“Ah, well!” she cried, in weary petulance, “it’s an unco thing if a body’s not to have a moment’s rest after such a morning’s darg! I just sat down wi’ the book for a little, till John should come till his breakfast!”
“So?” said Gourlay. “God, ay!” he went on; “you’re making a nice job of him. He’ll be a credit to the house. Oh, it’s right, no doubt, that you should neglect your work till he consents to rise.”
“Eh, the puir la-amb,” she protested, dwelling on the vowels in fatuous, maternal love; “the bairn’s wearied, man! He’s ainything but strong, and the schooling’s owre sore on him.”
“Poor lamb, atweel,” said Gourlay. “It was a muckle sheep that dropped him.”
Not a comforting read, but very rewarding.