My rating: 5.5/10
Sir Julius Cromwell, blinded many years before by a bullet to the head in the Great War, has recently married the lovely and impetuous Celia, fifteen years his junior. The two are still in the physically passionate honeymoon stage of their relationship, Celia’s husband adores and indulges her, and she worships him; they are moving to a country estate in the town where Sir Julius grew up; a warm welcome by the locals is anticipated. So why does Celia feel so apprehensive and sick with fear, and why does she cringe away from the sightless gaze of her husband’s beautiful blue eyes?
Everybody loves Sir Julius, from the youngest vicarage child to his servants to the one surviving member of the noble family whose ancestral home Sir Julius has just taken over. Even the handsome Jim Burke, well-born but looked down on with disdain for his wandering ways and philandering approach to the local young women, has settled into a remarkably stable relationship as a companion-odd job man to Sir Julius; the two are comfortable in each others’ company, and Jim reads aloud by the hour to Sir Julius and is his intellectual equal in their long shared talks together.
The young Mrs. Cromwell, on the other hand, is not going over so well. Her hasty temper and impulsive ways wreak domestic havoc and Sir Julius is frequently called upon to smooth ruffled feathers. Celia is well meaning and vivacious; she soon realizes that she is making some bitter enemies among the local ladies – most particularly and seemingly without cause with the vicar’s wife, but she is floundering with how best to make friends and handle her servants tactfully.
When it becomes obvious to all that Jim Burke is looking with admiring eyes at the lovely wife of his employer-friend, gossip starts to ferment and Celia’s popularity takes a further nosedive. When the two are witnessed in an embrace in the woods, whispers become outspoken words, and Sir Julius’ happy world starts to crumble around him.
This is a readable though occasionally melodramatic examination of the psychological effects of blindness both on the blind man and on everyone around him. Much as Sir Julius attempts to just get on with things, his injury is the elephant in the room, engendering endless speculation. Celia in particular can’t seem to get over her surprise that her husband’s other senses are so highly developed to make up for the loss of his sight; she is almost offended by the keenness of his hearing, by the delicacy of his touch, and by his uncanny ability to navigate through the darkest of rooms. Jim Burke has perhaps the most natural response to Sir Julius and the two mens’ friendship is sincere, despite the complications of the jointly admired Celia.
Just as I thought to myself that the story was taking on shades of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, what with the maimed husband, passionate young wife and handsome young retainer aspect and all, what does clever Walpole do but make reference to D.H. Lawrence in his own narrative, leading me to believe that the resemblance to the scenario is more than accidental.
It was as though (Celia) had been placed out of contact with everyone living. She picked up a book—a heavy brown volume on the table at her elbow. The Letters of D. H. Lawrence. There had been a time when it had been the fashion among her friends to read Lawrence, as though there were a new gospel here. And perhaps there was. She could never be sure, because so much of The Rainbow and Women in Love bored and wearied her, and sometimes there were magnificent things.
But now she read on and on and it was as though Lawrence screamed in her ear, telling her that catastrophe was on the way. She could not understand why he rejected everything and everybody—rejection, hate, misery. And then would come some passage of natural description so lovely and quiet that his voice dropped to a loving encouraging whisper. He rejected all living human beings. He said again and again with sickening reiteration that he trusted no one. His dearest friends he would embrace at one moment and reject with loathing at the next. Everything revolved around himself. He was sick, he was poor, he was betrayed, and he said so over and over again. But he had genius, that strange gift of seeing everything and everybody for the first time, as though no one had ever lived on this earth before himself.
But his thin nervous cry increased her own fear. He was right. The world was dreadful because the people in it were dreadful—dreadful and menacing…
Poor Celia, and poor Sir Julius. Poor Jim Burke, too! For this love triangle evaporates into nothingness, leaving the married couple still in partnership with each other and leaving Jim to make peace with himself on the outside of society’s charmed circle after his brief time of friendship with his fellow kindred spirit.
Hugh Walpole capably weaves numerous personal histories together on his way through this domestic saga, and some of his characterizations are clever and beautifully poignant, particularly concerning the three vicarage children. But ultimately I felt that The Blind Man’s House was something of a minor work; too busy with incident and attempts at analysis to ever really settle down into story; personalities only carrying the thing so far.
The Blind Man’s House is available online at Project Gutenberg Canada.