The Magnificent Ambersons

Charles James Fox. Parental indulgence never did him any harm.

(by Booth Tarkington).

Charles James Fox was born on the 24th January 1749, the third son of  Henry Fox, First Baron Holland and Caroline Lennox.

“Once a grand dinner was held at Holland House for some visiting foreign dignitaries.  The Fox children were brought in for dessert.  Charles, still a toddler in petticoats, said he wanted to bathe in a huge bowl of cream that stood on the table.  Despite Caroline’s remonstrances, Fox ordered the dish to be put down on the floor and there, in full view of some of Europe’s most powerful politicians, the little boy slopped and slid to his heart’s content In the cool, thick liquid.  Another time Fox lifted Charles up on the table and put him on top of a prize joint of roast beef so that the child could sit astride the symbol of England itself, a living image of Fox’s hopes for his sons.  This indulgence scandalised more disciplinarian parents but Fox insisted that it had a rationale, saying of Charles, “Let nothing be done to break his spirit.  The world will do that business fast enough.”  “Aristocrats”, Stella Tillyard.

A fictional boy called George Amberson Minifer born half a world away and more than a century after Charles Fox was every bit as spoilt.  Although technically only an Amberson on his mother’s side, George Amberson Minifer was the Amberson’s Amberson.  The richest, proudest, most aristocratic young man ever born, the magnificent  scion of the most magnificent dynasty ever. Georgie’s maternal grandfather, Major Anderson, made a fortune in the late nineteenth century…”the Ambersons were magnificent in their day and place.   Their splendour lasted throughout all the years that saw their Midland town spread and darken into a city, but reached its topmost during the period when every prosperous family with children kept a Newfoundland dog”.   The immense and rapid evolutions in life  (including in the fashion in dogs) from the late eighteenth century on are Tarkington’s subjects.

The Major understands that change is inevitable and can be turned to profit:-

“The magnificence of the Ambersons was as conspicuous as a brass band at a funeral. Major Amberson bought two hundred acres of land at the end of National Avenue; and through this tract he built broad streets and cross-streets; paved them with cedar block, and curbed them with stone. He set up fountains, here and there, where the streets intersected, and at symmetrical intervals placed cast-iron statues, painted white, with their titles clear upon the pedestals: Minerva, Mercury, Hercules, Venus, Gladiator, Emperor Augustus, Fisher Boy, Stag-hound, Mastiff, Greyhound, Fawn, Antelope, Wounded Doe, and Wounded Lion…All this Art showed a profit from the start, for the lots sold well and there was something like a rush to build in the new Addition. Its main thoroughfare, an oblique continuation of National Avenue, was called Amberson Boulevard, and here, at the juncture of the new Boulevard and the Avenue, Major Amberson reserved four acres for himself, and built his new house—the Amberson Mansion, of course.”

Georgie Amberson, however,  cannot understand and will not accept change.  He is an Amberson  and conducts himself as Ambersons always have (he thinks) and always will. He describes his “theory of life” :“…I think the world’s like this: there’s a few people that their birth and position, and so on, puts them at the top, and they ought to treat each other entirely as equals”.

Fortunately for the reader, Georgie’s pomposity can be amusing, as in this letter written from his University :- “I do not take a great interest in many people, as you know, for I find most of them shallow.  Here in the old place I do not believe in being hail-fellow-well-met with every Tom, Dick and Harry just because he happens to be a classmate, any more than I do at home, whare I have always been careful who I was seen with, largely on account of the family, but also because my disposition ever since my boyhood has been to encourage real intimacy from but the few.

“What are you reading now?  I have finished both “Henry Esmond” and “The Virginians”.  I like Thackeray because he is not trashy and because he writes principally of nice people.  My theory of literature is an author who does not indulge in trashiness – writes about people you could introduce into your own home.  I agree with my Uncle Sydney, as I once heard him say he did not care to read a book or go to a play about people he would not care to meet at his own diner table   I believe we should live by certain standards and ideals, as you know from my telling you my theory of life..

My faithful briar has gone out.  I will have to rise and fill it, then once more in the fragrance of My Lady Nicotine, I will sit and dream the old dreams over...”

George’s arrogance has been fertilised, watered and carefully nurtured by his stupidly doting mother,  Isabel :-

Isabel laughed. “I think I never knew a more angelically amiable disposition in my life!”

Miss Fanny echoed her sister-in-law’s laugh, but it was a rueful echo, and not sweet. “He’s amiable to you!”  she said.  “That’s all the side of him you ever happen to see.  And why wouldn’t he be amiable to anybody that simply fell down and worshipped him every minute of her life?  Most of us would!”

“Isn’t he worth worshipping?  Just look at him!…”

Isabel is warned  :- “George will act toward you only as your long worship of him, your sacrifices – all the unseen little ones every day since he was born – will make him act.  Dear, it breaks my heart for you, but what you have to oppose now is the history of your own selfless and perfect motherhood.  I remember saying once that what you worshiped in your son was the angel you saw in him – and I still believe that is true of every mother,  But in a mother’s worship she may not see that the Will in her son should not always be offered incense along with the angel”.

George’s over-weening  self-belief is never trimmed by his mild father to whom George has paid “but the slightest attention“; who is so negligible an influence on his son “that George had seldom been consciously aware that his father was indeed a part of his life”

George brawls, insults, harasses and rides roughshod over all the little people who are not Ambersons (at times riding over them literally, in his dog-cart).  He holds a certain fascination and glamour for some, but is generally not popular. “There were people – grown people they were – who expressed themselves longingly: they did hope to live to see the day, they said, when that boy would get his come-uppance! (They used that honest word, so much better than “desserts”, and not until many years later to be more clumsily rendered as “what is coming to him”).  Something was bound to take him down, some day, and they only wanted to be there!”

Tarkington is too good a writer to make George a noble chap at heart.  Nobility, insight and compassion are embodied in the characters of George’s grandfather Amberson, his uncle George Amberson and  the automobile manufacturer, Eugene Morgan.

George is taken by Eugene’s daughter  Lucy.  Lucy is fascinated and bemused by him.  When they first meet, Lucy has had to tell George that the “queer looking duck” whom he has noticed is her father and a man of importance:-

She laughed gaily “…papa’s a great man!”

“Is he?” George decided to be good-natured “Well, let us hope so.  I hope so, I’m sure” 

“Looking at him keenly, she saw that the magnificent youth was incredibly sincere in this bit of graciousness.  He spoke as a tolerant, elderly statesman might speak of a promising young politician; and with her eyes still upon him, Lucy shook her head in gentle wonder.  “I’m just beginning to understand,” she said.

“Understand what?”

“What it means to be a real Amberson in this town. Papa told me something about it before we came, but I see he didn’t say half enough!”

George superbly took this all for tribute.”

Lucy has her doubts about George’s future:-

“George, like his ‘crowd’, not only preferred ‘being things’ to ‘doing things’, but had contented himself with four years of ‘being things’ as a preparation for going on ‘being things’,  And when Lucy rather shyly pressed him for his friends’ probable definition of the ‘things’ it seemed so superior and beautiful to be, George raised his eyebrows slightly, meaning that she should have understood without explanation, but he did explain: ‘Oh, family and all that – being a gentleman, I suppose.’

Lucy gave the horizon a long look, but offered no comment.”

Despite herself, Lucy falls for George, being  “one of those too faithful victims of glamour”. She is not intelligent, but is shrewd and manipulative enough to play George for a fool:-

“No!” she cried and lifting her face close to his for the shortest instant possible, she gave him a look half merry, half defiant, but all fond.  It was an adorable look.

“Lucy!”  he said huskily.”

And again:-

“At this she became as serious as he could have asked; she looked down and her lip quivered like that of a child about to cry.  Suddenly she put her hand upon one of his for just an instant, and then withdrew it.

“Lucy! he said huskily.”

Clever girl:-

“…After declining to let him kiss her “good-bye”, as if his desire for such a ceremony were the most preposterous absurdity in the world, she had leaned suddenly close to him and left upon his cheek the veriest feather from a fairy’s wing.”

Lucy’s enjoying herself at an Assembly, pointedly  ignoring  George;-

“An unbearable soreness accumulated in his chest:  his dislike of the girl and her conduct increased until he thought of leaving this sickening Assembly and going home to bed.  That would show her!  But just then he heard her laughing, and decided that it wouldn’t show her.  So he remained.”

It is not just Lucy’s motives and travails that go over George’s head.  He fails to see that his Aunt Fanny, whom he likes to “tease,” is a woman embittered and shrivelled by spinsterhood.  When Fanny is stricken with grief at the death of someone close to her, he is amazed.  He decides that it must be because she is “scared sick” that he will turn her out.  When Fanny is in despair at her circumstances he gives her some appallingly insensitive advice and muses that she “doesn’t ‘cheer up’ much!”  He totally misses the point of her elation at some of his particularly bad behaviour.He almost falls over in magnificent shock when he realises that his mother, the beautiful and weak-willed Isabel, has a life separate from his – and he doesn’t like it. George’s grandfather is not interested in hearing his advice on the running of the Amberson Estate and shuts and locks the library door on him, “Second childhood!”  George muttered, shaking his head; and he thought sadly that the Major has not long to live.  However, this surmise depressed him for only a moment or so.  Of course, people couldn’t be expected to live forever, and it would be a good thing to have someone in charge of the Estate who wouldn’t let it get to looking so rusty that riffraff dared to make fun of it”.

George wants a tandem horse coach.  The family’s reduced circumstances do not deter him.  Nor does the suggestion that the day of the automobile has come.  Eugene Morgan, automobile manufacturer is the force of change.  George is unmoved.

“‘I said all automobiles were a nuisance,’ George answered, repeating not only the words but the tone in which he had uttered them.  And he added, ‘They’ll never amount to anything but a nuisance.  They had no business to be invented.’

The Major frowned.  “Of course you forget that Mr Morgan makes them, and also did his share in inventing them.  If you weren’t so thoughtless he might think you rather offensive.”

‘That would be too bad,’ said George coolly. ‘I don’t think I could survive it.’

Again there was a silence, while the Major stared at his grandson, aghast.  But Eugene began to laugh cheerfully.

‘I’m not sure he’s wrong about automobiles,’ he said. ‘With all their speed forward they may be a step backward in civilization – that is, in spiritual civilization.  It may be that they will not add to the beauty of the world, nor to the life of men’s souls.  I am not sure.  But automobiles have come, and they bring a greater change in our life than most of us suspect.  They are here, and almost all outward things are going to be different because of what they bring.  They are going to alter war, and they are going to alter peace.  I think men’s minds are going to be changed in subtle ways because of automobiles; just how, though, I could hardly guess.”

Tarkington repeatedly draws our attention to this change which motor cars will bring, and nowhere is that better exemplified than in these two passages.  The Ambersons are sitting on their veranda, watching the traffic:-

“There, in the highway, the evening life of the Midland city had begun.  A rising moon was bright upon the tops of the shade trees, where their branches met overhead, arching across the street, but only filtered splashings of moonlight reached the block pavement below; and through this darkness flashed the firefly lights of silent bicycles gliding by in pairs and trios – or sometimes a dozen at a time might come, and not so silent, striking their little bells; the riders’ voices calling and laughing; …Surreys rumbled lightly by, with the plod-plod of honest old horses, and frequently there was the glitter of whizzing spokes from a runabout or a sporting buggy, and the sharp, decisive hoof-beats of a trotter.  Then, like a cowboy shooting up a peaceful camp, a frantic devil would hurtle out of the distance, bellowing, exhaust racketing like a machine gun gone amuck – and at these horrid sounds the surreys and buggies would hug the curbstone, and the bicycles scatter to cover, cursing; while children rushed from the sidewalks to drag pet dogs from the street.”

And after some time has passed:-

“He sighed; and both were silent, looking out at the long flares of the constantly passing automobile headlights, shifting in vast geometric demonstrations against the darkness.  Now and then a bicycle wound its nervous way among these portents, or, at long intervals, a surrey or buggy plodded forlornly by.”

To Tarkington, the passing of time, the inevitable evolution of towns into cities and country into suburbs is an accumulation of smoke and pollution.

The snow no longer fell, and far ahead, in a grayish cloud that lay upon the land was the town.

Lucy looked at this distant thickening reflection.  “When we get this far out we can see there must be quite a little smoke hanging over the town,” she said..  “I suppose that’s because it’s growing.  As it grows bigger it seems to get ashamed of itself, so it makes this cloud and hides in it.”

George’s mother says, “…Time does really fly, or perhaps it’s more like the sky – and smoke -“

George was puzzled. “What do you mean: time being like the sky and smoke?”

“I mean the things that we have and that we think are so solid – they’re like smoke, and time is like the sky that the smoke disappears into.  You know how a wreath of smoke goes up from a chimney, and seems all thick and black and busy against the sky, as if it were going to do such important things and last forever, and you see it getting thinner and thinner – and then, in such a little while, it isn’t there at all; nothing is left but the sky, and the sky keeps on being just the same forever.”

To George this is “wistful, moody” “guff”.

When the crisis comes, George is incensed to learn that there is gossip in the town about his family.  Uncle George Amberson warns him:  “Gossip is never fatal, Georgie,’ he said, ‘until it is denied.  Gossip goes on about every human being alive and about all the dead that are alive enough to be remembered, and yet almost never does any harm until some defender makes a controversy.  Gossip’s a nasty thing, but it’s sickly, and if people of good intentions will let it entirely alone, it will die, ninety-nine times out of a hundred”. 

But George makes the fatal decision –“There never was an Amberson yet that would let the Amberson name go trailing in the dust like that!  It’s the proudest name in this town and it’s going to stay the proudest; and I tell you that’s the deepest thing in my nature”“his Uncle George Amberson was a hopeless dreamer from whom no help need be expected, an amiable imbecile lacking in normal impulses, and wholly useless in a struggle which required honour to be defended by a man of action.”

George has not realised that the time of interest in the Ambersons is passing:  “New faces appeared at the dances of the winter; new faces had been appearing everywhere, for that matter, and familiar ones were disappearing, merged in the increasing crowd, or gone forever and missed a little and not long; for the town was growing and changing as it never had grown and changed before.

It was heaving up in the middle incredibly; it was spreading incredibly; and as it heaved and spread, it befouled itself and darkened its skies.”

So, in his pride and heedlessness, George makes an appalling decision.  It is no spoiler for the reader of this morality tale to say that George gets his comeuppance, and it is brutal. George is hurt and has hurt others irreparably. He endures a long dark night-time of the soul, which he thoroughly deserves. “Whatever remnants of the old high-handed arrogance were still within him, he did penance for his deepest sin that night” “He had got it three times file and running over. The city had rolled over his heart, burying it under, as it rolled over the Major’s and buried it under.  The city had rolled over the Ambersons and buried them under to the last vestige” George’s desperate denial and eventual realisation of what he has done is the most poignant part of this book about the things that time takes away.

In the end George does come good, as we know he will, but he really has no choice. He’s simply unkillable. The world moves on, the town forgets the Ambersons and there may be no place in it for a George Amberson Minifer .  But people like George always fall on their feet, don’t they?

This is a moral tale, so expect the expected.  It is the kind of novel in which, when a character is pale, they have a terminal illness and when they seem to rally we know that they are not long for this world. But it is a colourful, unsympathetic, crisp and believable piece of writing which, after all, won the Pulitzer Prize…

Time takes away, but it also gives and as we all know, the more things change, the more they stay the same.  As Eugene Morgan knew.

“My Lord!” Kinney groaned, half in earnest.  “Old times starting all over again!   My Lord!”
“Old times?” Morgan laughed gaily from the doorway.  “Not a bit!  There aren’t any old times.  When times are gone they’re not old, they’re dead!  There aren’t any times but new times!”

Yes, the more things change…..Aunt Fanny sends Georgie a local newspaper item, on the border of which she has written, “I wonder whom it can mean”.

“We debate sometimes what is to be the future of this nation when we think that in a few years public affairs may be in the hands of the fin-de-siecle gilded youths we see about us during the Christmas holidays.  Such foppery, such luxury, such insolence, was surely never practised by the scented, overbearing patricians of the Palatine, even in Rome’s most decadent epoch.  In all the wild orgy of wastefulness and luxury with which the nineteenth century reaches its close, the gilded youth has been surely the worst symptom….One wonders what has come over the new generation.  Of such as these the Republic was not made.  Let us pray that the future of our country is not in the hands of these fin-de-siecle gilded youths, but rather in the calloused palms of young men yet unknown, labouring upon the farms of the land.  When we compare the young manhood of Abraham Lincoln with the specimens we are now producing, we see too well that it  bodes ill for the twentieth century”

George yawned, and tossed the clipping into his waste-basket, wondering why his aunt thought such dull nonsense worth the sending.”

Change “twentieth century” for “twenty-first” and we could be reading about our own beloved “millennials”.  Many of whom can be described with George Amberson Minifer’s favourite insult, “riffraff”.


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