Waugh’s title is taken from the phrase ‘an Englishman’s home is his castle’, which denotes the status that English people apocryphally give to their homes, seeing them as impregnable sanctuaries, safe from the disturbances of the world. Waugh is a sometimes cruel satirist, puncturing the pretensions of moneyed English people in many of his novels and stories. This story is a very clear illustration of that.
Class and Social Position
As well as the focus on the English idea of home, Waugh also has the English class system in his satirical sights. The crucial thing about the main character, Metcalfe, is that he aspires to be assimilated into the landed upper class in the village of Much Malcock, but he doesn’t quite fit in. Right from the start, he is making observations about the behaviour of the ‘true countryman’, not out of curiosity, but ‘for emulation.’ His hopes are also clear in his earnest but unsuccessful wish for his house to be known as ‘the Hall’. The problem with Metcalfe is that he is ‘the cotton wallah’ – he has made his money not from inheritance, but from trade. He has become rich by organising the sale of Egyptian cotton in Alexandria. He therefore ranks far below Lord Brakehurst, Lady Peabury and even Colonel Hodge, despite having much more money than the latter. It is the absurdities of these divisions which Waugh mocks.
In a story structured in five parts, Waugh uses the first to set the scene, establishing Metcalfe, Much Malcock and its society. He also lays down key ideas which will assume their relevance as the narrative develops. Among the descriptions of village activities and the local population, Waugh ensures that readers understand the beauty of the village and particularly the presence of ‘sixty acres of farmland’ adjoining not only Metcalfe’s land, but Lady Peabury’s and Colonel Hodge’s. Waugh says that Metcalfe ‘toyed’ with buying the land, the verb revealing the level of his wealth, but also, crucially, that he decided against. It is that land which becomes the key focal point of the story.
The Horror of Building
Waugh’s sharp focus on the fear the wealthy English hold for any activity which might encroach on their privileged position is apparent in his language choices, first of all italicising ‘Build’ as a sentence fragment to open a paragraph. That word is linked with the adjective ‘hideous’ and further vocabulary and phrases, such as ‘Development’ and ‘Council houses’ are described as ‘obscene words’. The comic hyperbole continues with reference to ‘the fierce tribes beyond the parish boundary’ and the description of the possible building as ‘the horror’ and the ‘Plague in the court of the Decameron’, a reference to the Black Death of the Middle Ages.
The absurdity of Much Malcock society is further depicted in Waugh’s patterning and repetitions, which make the characters utterly predictable – the confirmation of Metcalfe’s thoughts about Lady Peabury’s disappointment in him, that Colonel Hodge is ‘none too pleased’ and both characters’ opinion that Westmacott’s field ‘always used to go with’ Metcalfe’s house. The artistic pretensions of the Hornbeams are also deftly skewered as they cope with their ‘Hopeless sorrow’ not by singing ‘refrains of folk music’ as they usually do, but by using a ‘Japanese mystical practice’ to dismiss the threat ‘into the World of Unbeing’. Waugh is unflattering about comfortable landowners, but he has no mercy either for those who he sees as New Age cranks.
Waugh comically exploits the omniscient narration to shift between dialogue and characters’ thoughts to portray the class tensions and snobbery in the meeting of the villagers, revealing Metcalfe and Lady Peabury particularly. The imagery of playing bridge – ‘She held her cards and passed the bidding’ – demonstrates the level of cunning and gamesmanship between them. However, it is the end of this second section that really raises the tension, with Hodge’s discussion with the field’s purchaser. If the prospect of ‘bungalows’ causes ‘Nervous gloom’, the reader will understand Hodge’s shock at the thought of ‘an experimental industrial laboratory’ with ‘great chimneys’ and ‘a water tower’, which the man apparently intends to build in Westmacott’s field. Waugh has spent ten pages establishing the fear of a few houses before this late-story climax which instead threatens ‘poison fumes’.
An Exchange of Letters
The use of documents or letters is a useful narrative device and the exchange in Section III is very revealing. Metcalfe’s letter begins very formally, using a business style eminently suited to a former president of the British Chamber of Commerce. However, Metcalfe’s feelings become plainer when the formality gives way to ‘The young blackguard has us in a cleft stick’, with its colloquial image and insult. The end of the letter gives way to threat, suggesting ‘cost to the neighbourhood’, and just in case the point wasn’t clear, he adds a blunt postscript about ‘building lots’. In this way the letter communicates Metcalfe’s anger and frustration, but Waugh undermines Lady Peabury totally. She begins in an even more formal style than Metcalfe, writing in the third person as if she is completely detached. However, she slips into the first person even before the first sentence is finished and pivots between ‘Lady Peabury’ and ‘I’ throughout the letter. Similarly, she cannot maintain a consistent ‘Mr Metcalfe’, but frequently uses ‘you’. By this lack of consistent control, Waugh suggests that Lady Peabury is a sham, clinging to her position at the top of the social pyramid with nothing but ancestry to support it.
After the unfriendly correspondence, Waugh’s penultimate section of the story is a carefully gloomy one, as the lexis demonstrates – ‘to be defiled’, ‘monstrosities in steel and glass’, ‘doomed field’, ‘moped and drooped’. The hyperbolically pessimistic tone is developed through the perspectives of Metcalfe, who laments the fate of the ‘lovely valley’, Lady Peabury, who can only see a future moving ‘from hotel to hotel’, and the miserable Hornbeams and Colonel Hodge. The surprise, and it is a surprise which Waugh uses to prepare for the denouement, is that the prospective builder, Mr Hargood-Hood, is also ‘affected by the general gloom’ and seeks to alleviate it with a mystery visit to Colonel Hodge.
The mystery of the visit is maintained by Waugh’s decision to create a narrative lacuna – a gap in the story – as the final section leaps forward in time and the reader finds a hive of activity throughout the Much Malcock community, raising funds by various means to purchase the field and build a scout hut. There is still a slight sense of the antagonism between Lady Peabury and Metcalfe, as he pushes ahead with the scout hut over her suggestions of a camp site, but Metcalfe has achieved the aspirations that were apparent at the opening of the story. He has become the ‘public benefactor’, his name is directly linked with Lady Peabury’s in the naming of the scout hut, and most audaciously of all, he is looking to depose even Lord Brakehurst, absent from the story because he is ‘a class apart’, from the name of the local pub.
In one of the classic techniques of short story structure, Waugh saves his final twist for the end. For the first time, the narrative focuses on the Mr Hargood-Hood and his lawyer, who is revealed to be his brother, and the reader discovers that the whole thing has been a scam. No ‘industrial laboratory’ was intended at all, but a crafty plan to buy land, frighten the residents and sell it back at a profit. The story ends with them eyeing up their next target, another ‘unspoilt, well-loved village.’ Waugh’s satire works to the end – the wealthy property-owners have been pinned by fraudsters as well as Waugh’s prose and in this, of course, he also satirises the ruthless greed of property development by presenting developers who do not even build.
Narrative methods to consider:
- Omniscient third person narration