Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Just the stupeedity o' spite! - beginning The House with the Green Shutters

I’m going to keep the magnifying glass out.  The House with the Green Shutters begins obliquely:

The frowsy chambermaid of the ‘Red Lion’ had just finished washing the front door steps.  She rose from her stooping posture and, being of slovenly habit, flung the water from her pail straight out, without moving from where she stood.  The smooth round arch of the falling water glistened for a moment in mid-air.  John Gourlay, standing in front of his new house at the head of the brae, could hear the swash of it when it fell.  The morning was of perfect stillness.

John Gourlay, the tyrant of Barbie, is one of the two main characters of George Douglas Brown’s novel.  That maid is not, but we begin with her.  Actually, the key is that we begin at the Red Lion, headquarters of the enemies of Gourlay and his too-ostentatious house with the green shutters, the house mentioned in the second-to-last sentence.  As usual, if the writer is careful and in control of his material, the beginning packs a lot in.  The first-time reader has no hope of seeing any of this.  I didn’t know who Gourlay was, I didn’t know the “new house” is the house of the title, I didn’t know anything.

The next, short paragraph:

The hands of the clock across "the Square" were pointing to the hour of eight.  They were yellow in the sun.

Still with the town, not with the characters.  Between the Red Lion and the Square, Brown has established the space for almost all of the outdoor scenes of the book.  Then there’s that sun, the beginning of Brown’s recurring joke, that the town of Barbie has the most pleasant weather in Scotland.  Dark deeds under the bright sun.

Those yellow clock hands, the wash-water caught in midair, and then its “swash” – a reader who does not know the 1901 publication date can guess that we are post-Flaubert.  The point of view has a nice fluidity, too.  We see the maid, objectively, but then who comments that she’s lazy?  John Gourlay cannot see the maid, but he can hear the water, and we know that, somehow, since we’re with him, too.  Then back into the Square.  In and out, up and over.  The writer's imagination goes where it wants.

As far as the story goes, in the five pages of the first chapter, we learn that this day, this moment, is the high point of John Gourlay’s life.  By a coincidence of scheduling, all twelve of his wagons (he’s in the carrying trade – cheese, bricks, anything) will leave his hilltop yard, with its new house, and move through town at once, in a massive display of power and contempt.  Massive for this little town.  Everyone comes out to see it.

"I hope they liked it!" he thought, and he nodded several times at the town beneath his feet, with a slow up-and-down motion of the head, like a man nodding grimly to his beaten enemy.  It was as if he said, "See what I have done to ye!"

It’s all downhill from here.  Since the house is on top of a hill, that’s literal.  Is that cheap symbolism, or is the writer who gives it up as too easy a dang fool?

The posts's title is actually from Chapter 2, and could be the title of the novel.


  1. Although the premise of this story doesn't exactly appeal to me, the more quotes you pull from the book the more intrigued I am. The descriptive style of writing certainly sucks me in, and I want more. Guess I'll have to read it!

  2. What's missing from the premise? Maybe it's actually there, and I have inadvertently omitted it. I give short shrift to plot and premise, maybe too short, and long shrift to the things I care about more - e.g., yes, this is a well-written book.