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Colloque de la SFEVE Bordeaux (janvier 2014) – Clubs and Dissidence

Social Iconotext: the Stoics’ Club in John Galsworthy’s The Country House (1907)

Un iconotexte social : le Club des Stoïques dans Le Domaine de John Galsworthy
Maxime Leroy


L’article décrit certains éléments d’écriture visuelle utilisés par Galsworthy en lien avec l’ironie et la satire sociale. Il montre l’importance du club comme habitus, au sens de Bourdieu, à la fois réel et métaphorique. Le concept de technème proposé par Hamon sert à étudier les valeurs symboliques des fenêtres et portes du club. L’article pose l’hypothèse que le cadre pictural est un trope central donné par le narrateur comme clé de lecture de l’ensemble du roman.

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1The country house of the title is the home of Mr and Mrs Pendyce at Worsted Skeynes. The eldest son, George, lives in London, dividing his time between his club and the racetracks. Instead of getting married and learning to manage the estate, as his father would expect, George falls in love with Mrs Bellew, a woman with an alcoholic husband. The story explores the subsequent effects of the planned divorce, and expected scandal, upon the three people most closely involved, and their wider family circle, until Mrs Bellew gives her lover up and her husband stops the proceedings. Readers of The Forsyte Saga will recognize some of Galsworthy’s favourite themes. Set in 1891, The Country House, like the famous trilogy, is ‘a chronicle of familial decline (the microcosm) . . . capturing the struggles of Britain (the macrocosm) as it undergoes the transition from late-Victorianism to modernism’ (Black 202). This is perceived by Mr Horace Pendyce whose ‘individual conviction [was] that individualism had ruined England, and [who] had set himself deliberately to eradicate this vice from the characters of his tenants’ (Galsworthy 6). The many clubs that appear in the novel are another common point. Some are real like the Army and Navy, some fictional like the Nelson, and plenty others are not named. George is a member of the fictional Stoics’ Club, where he spends much of his time. The aim of this article is to show how Galsworthy’s use of visual writing in the evocation of the place forms a basis for his ironic social criticism.

2George is the typical young bachelor to whom, as Karl Baedeker wrote in 1889, ‘his club is a most serviceable institution’ (cited in Black 15), being both the recreation of a homely environment and a place for professional connections. For Mr Pendyce, to introduce his son to the world of clubs was a form of social rescue: ‘George had failed; he would have preferred that George should devote himself to the estate, marry, and have a son, instead of idling away his time in town, but George had failed; and so, beyond furthering his desire to join the Yeomanry, and getting him proposed for the Stoics’ Club, what was there he could have done to keep him out of mischief?’ (Galsworthy 204). The irony is that the desire to ‘indulge in mischief among loyal brothers’ (Black 34) is precisely what most clubs acknowledged, and the main reason why George spends so much time at the Stoics’ is because he does not want to be in the family house and face his father’s reproaches. The club fully plays its traditional role of substitute home, with as much routine as family life may impose: ‘He came to the club about ten o’clock to eat his breakfast and read the sporting papers. Towards noon a hansom took him to the railway-station appropriate to whatever race-meeting was in progress, or, failing that, to the cricket-ground at Lord’s, or Prince’s Tennis Club’ (Galsworthy 225). He would invariably return to the club at half-past six, ‘mounting the staircase of the Stoics’ to the card-room’ (Galsworthy 226) and have his dinner, ‘the undisputed centrepiece of club life’ (Black 34), at eight. Conversely, when George is at Worsted Skeynes he tries to recreate the protective atmosphere of the club—only to be disrupted by the presence of some boisterous company: ‘Having bathed and changed, George Pendyce took his betting-book into the smoking-room. In a nook devoted to literature, protected from draught and intrusion by a high leather screen, he sat down in an armchair and fell into a doze . . . He was awakened by voices’ (Galsworthy 27).

3The Stoics’ is situated in the heart of clubland, ‘in Piccadilly, fronting the Green Park’ (Galsworthy 88). Its social geography is explored through its architecture as different scenes are set in the writing-room, the smoking-room, the card-room, the kitchen, the cellar and various halls, each with its specific function and rules of entry. The club’s small trades are evoked and their role is commented on, from the club commissionaire to the porter who precedes George’s mother ‘with the quiet discretion of one who aids a mistress to her lover’ (Galsworthy 220). In order to preserve the congeniality of the institution, blackballs are used for elections to membership. Galsworthy obviously drew from his personal experience of club life to render a seemingly realistic picture of it. Comparison to contemporary descriptions like Arthur Griffiths’s Clubs and Clubmen (1907), Ralph Nevill’s London Clubs (1911) and Francis Pixley’s Clubs and Their Management (1914) shows the author’s attempt at accurate reconstruction of a social microcosm or ‘habitus’, a concept defined by Pierre Bourdieu as ‘a sort of social orientation’ (cited in Black 28) that the movements of the characters around the building represent metaphorically.

  • 1 See in particular “On the family as realized category”, Theory, Culture & Society 13:3 (1996): 19–2 (...)

4Yet, realism is constantly perverted by the narrator’s subtle satire, for example when it comes to members’ rules, the first of which being that ‘No member of this club shall have any occupation whatsoever’ (Galsworthy 87). As in The Forsyte Saga, satire is aimed at idle upper-class or upper-middle-class men, and particularly ‘the landed gentry’ from which ‘the Stoics were mainly derived’ (Galsworthy 88). Bourdieu’s analyses on reproduction and inheritance1 find a humorous counterpart in some absurd syllogism: ‘Harder than for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle is it for a man to become a member of the Stoics’ Club, except by virtue of the hereditary principle; for unless he be nourished he cannot be elected, and since by the club’s first rule he may have no occupation whatsoever, he must be nourished by the efforts of those who have gone before’ (Galsworthy 223). As Bourdieu also explains, ‘social identity lies in difference’ (cited in Black 28) and the Stoics do seem obsessed with distinguishing themselves from those below—hence their decision that ‘neither the new art nor the resplendent drapings of those larger clubs sacred to the middle classes’ (Galsworthy 220) would be seen at theirs.

5Because for George and for other characters clubs are their homes and headquarters, they become ‘the archetypal containers of [their] lives’, around which the narrative literally ‘take[s] place’ as ‘characters converge, act and interact’ (Dufresne 127) within their framework. For instance, letters are repeatedly sent from one club to another, as well as between club and home, and interpolated in the narrative, with letterheads like ‘the fat white ‘Stoics’ Club,’ so well known on George’s letters’ (Galsworthy 220). This is significant insofar as ‘both the symbol and the tool of male social significance . . . correspondence on club stationery was one of clubland’s great entitlements and conveniences’ (Black 42). It is indeed a way to assert male dominance: Mrs Pendyce is told by her husband that the letter he will write to George to make him promise not to see Mrs Bellew again is ‘not a matter’ for her (Galsworthy 136), and by her son that ‘This isn’t a woman’s business’ (Galsworthy 229). For George though, the greatest convenience is probably to avoid direct communication with his father and to retreat behind the written word (and the club’s heading) to give his answer: ‘Stoics’ Club. Dear father, Yes, Bellew is bringing a suit. I am taking steps in the matter. As to the promise you ask for, I can give no promise of the sort’ (Galsworthy 156-57). Club stationery is also used by George to keep record of his financial situation, as when he is on his way to the races at Epsom: ‘George Pendyce sat in the corner of a first-class railway-carriage trying to make two and two into five. On a sheet of Stoics’ Club note-paper his racing-debts were stated to a penny’ (Galsworthy 181). The club is also the place where other characters expect him to be and first look for him: ‘I am rather anxious about George. I hope the dear boy is well. If you are passing his club some day you might look in and just ask after him’ (Galsworthy 143), his mother asks her cousin Gregory Vigil in part II, chapter V, and again in part III, chapter VI: ‘I . . . beg you, if you have a moment to spare, to look in at George’s club this evening’ (Galsworthy 259).

6‘Look in’ is the key verb in both quotes, meaning both visit and glance into, and thus echoing the recurrent image of George sitting in the window, looking out and wanting to be seen: he ‘lived at his club in town on an allowance of six hundred a year, and sat a great deal in a bay-window reading Ruff’s “Guide to the Turf”’ (Galsworthy 16). He is, in that respect, the typical Stoic, as ‘through the many windows of [the club’s] ground-floor smoking-room the public were privileged to see at all hours of the day numbers of Stoics in various attitudes reading the daily papers or gazing out of the window’ (Galsworthy 88). The image introduces a dialectics between interior and exterior and the paradox of a selective place exhibiting—to a point—its secrecy. Philippe Hamon’s concept of technème is useful here to understand how the window acts as a frame which delimits the viewpoint and creates a sense of organised space. The window is a good vantage point for club members, but the idea of course is as much to be seen, admired and envied: ‘They who have passed the windows of the Stoics’ Club and seen the Stoics sitting there have haunting visions of the idle landed classes. These visions will not let them sleep, will not let their tongues to cease from bitterness, for they so long to lead that “idle” life themselves’ (Galsworthy 270). Sometimes of course the passer-by is, rather annoyingly, his uncle Gregory ‘once more passing [him] in the bow-window of the Stoics’ Club, and once more raising on his face a jeering smile’ (Galsworthy 83), and in the worst case his own mother: ‘Mrs. Pendyce came to Piccadilly and turned westward towards George’s club. She knew it well, for she never failed to look at the windows when she passed’ (Galsworthy 219-20). The narrator’s irony is palpable, especially as the image is a clear reference to James Hogg’s The Habits of Good Society (1859), whose famous first sentence, ‘I am the Man in the Club-Window’ (cited in Black 12), was also illustrated by the book’s frontispiece. James Gillray’s caricature, ‘A Standing Dish at Boodle’s’, showing Sir Frank Standish sitting in the window of this club, is also part of a pictorial tradition informing Galsworthy’s novel.

7The window is also a metaphor for the emergence of new forms of social visibility in the 1890s and the first decade of the 20th century. Prosperity was more and more visible, but also feminists, unionists and socialists, that is to say people who were beginning to challenge the rigid order protecting the ruling classes in Edwardian England. George senses the potential threat they pose: ‘Figures without end filed by. Some glanced at the lighted windows and the man in the white shirt-front sitting there. And many thought: “Wish I were that swell, with nothing to do but step into his father’s shoes”’ (Galsworthy 189). A world is about to disappear, that can still be contemplated through the windows at Worsted Skeynes, but only with a pang of anxiety: ‘Mrs Pendyce looked out of the window, but there was nothing to see save the ha-ha, the coverts, the village spire, the cottage roofs, which for so long had been her world’ (Galsworthy 162).

8These forms of interaction with passers-by are linked to the motif of the mask that being a Stoic means wearing: ‘Nature had devised a mask and shaped it to its highest form within the portals of the Stoics’ Club. With this mask she clothed the faces of these young men whose souls she doubted, and called them—gentlemen’ (Galsworthy 223). George sometimes resents this and ‘with the dark the club’s swing-doors opened for his passage into the lighted streets, and till next morning the world knew him no more. It was then that he took revenge for all the hours he wore a mask’ (Galsworthy 226). Again we note the importance of technèmes. The function of the swing-doors and the portals is traditionally to screen visitors but here they offer George a chance for escape. They contrast with ‘the surfaces of walls or gates or fences’ that Mr Pendyce significantly stares at before reading the Times ‘with close attention to all those Parliamentary measures threatening, remotely, the existing state of things’ (Galsworthy 271). For Horace Pendyce the club is not a gateway to London’s night life but the last bastion where he can pretend that things do not change: ‘Both, too, belonged to clubs—the Rector to a comfortable, old-fashioned place where he could get a rubber without gambling, and Mr. Pendyce to the Temple of things as they had been, as became a man who, having turned all social problems over in his mind, had decided that there was no real safety but in the past’ (Galsworthy 128). In Clubs and Clubmen Griffiths evokes the subtle rules of interaction presiding at a club in Brighton:

The new bay window marked an era in the life of the club. It was taken possession of by Beau Brummell, still in the zenith of his fame, and became the centre of fashion. It was monopolised by the leading members, and all the less prominent, pretentious members aspired to be admitted to it. To be saluted from the bay gave a stamp and cachet to the fortunate passer-by, so much so, that it was at length ruled that no greeting should be accorded from the window, and the members in possession kept their hats on their heads and vouchsafed only a stony stare to their most intimate friends in the street. Recognition was not allowed, but there was no restriction on ‘quizzing,’ and eyeglasses were constantly raised to criticise appearance and solecism in attire . . . The ordeal of the bay window has few terrors nowadays, but as late as Thackeray’s ‘Newcomes’ Barnes Newcome stood in it, to sneer at his cousin Clive and the old colonel passing down St. James’ Street. (Griffiths 61)

9Such absence of recognition turns club members into characters in paintings, and the window into a frame, in the pictorial sense, which is another recurrent motif in the novel. The narrator gives a programmatic, albeit retrospective, clue about this in one of the last scenes of the novel, in which Mrs Pendyce goes to George’s rooms in Chelsea but cannot find her way into the building. A ‘young man with a beard, resembling an artist’ (Galsworthy 250) offers his help and knocks for her as ‘All these knockers are stiff’ (Galsworthy 251). He explains why George is sure to be in: ‘I haven’t taken my eyes off his door, because I’ve been painting it’ (Galsworthy 251). He is still there with his easel as she comes out some time later, and thanks her for standing motionless in the door frame: ‘It was the relation between the figure and the door that I wanted to get’ (Galsworthy 257). The young man’s artistic preoccupation sounds odd. His words evoke the stylistically disrupting phrases identified by Liliane Louvel as reference markers in Le Tiers pictural, usually signalling a pictorial allusion through défamiliarisation (Louvel 239) or cahot (Louvel 237). In this case, they are the author’s indication that relations between people and their milieu, context or habitus (the frame) is indeed his project, and that the novel must be read in the light of its pictoriality. It appears even more clearly in another passage on which I would like to turn now. The scene is in part I, chapter X when George, after sitting in the club’s window once again, goes to the empty card-room and contemplates ‘the pictures on the walls’ (Galsworthy 88)—a movement inwards preparing for some disclosure on his personality. The paintings are ‘effigies of all those members of the Stoics’ Club who from time to time had come under the notice of a celebrated caricaturist in a celebrated society paper’ (Galsworthy 88). They are the fictional and comic counterparts of the theatrical portraits at the Garrick Club, the portraits of the Britons in India at the Oriental Club, the ‘Forty-seven engraved portraits of members, glazed in oak frames’ (Nevill 51) at White’s and the ‘portraits of distinguished officers’ (Nevill 250) at the Army and Navy. Galsworthy is also hinting at the dominant classes’ capacity for self-irony as a form of power. The mechanical process involved (rendered by the succession of four –EN forms in the following sentence) evokes Bergson’s definition of laughter as ‘something mechanical encrusted upon the living’ (Bergson 92): ‘Whenever a Stoic appeared, he was at once cut out, framed, glassed, and hung alongside his fellows in this room’ (Galsworthy 88-89). George, unsurprisingly, is sketched as a racegoer:

George moved from one to another till he came to the last. It was himself. He was represented in very perfectly cut clothes, with slightly crooked elbows, and race-glasses slung across him. His head, disproportionately large, was surmounted by a black billycock hat with a very flat brim. The artist had thought long and carefully over the face. The lips and cheeks and chin were moulded so as to convey a feeling of the unimaginative joy of life, but to their shape and complexion was imparted a suggestion of obstinacy and choler. To the eyes was given a glazed look and between them set a little line . . . (Galsworthy 89)

10The point of view is clearly George’s, but here again it is mixed with the narrator’s ironic stance. The young man sees in his portrait a celebration of his individual achievements, even the ‘apotheosis of his fame’ (Galsworthy 89), when the narrator subtly suggests his underlying social conformity (George is merely the last in a series). Moreover, George will eventually lose his fortune on the racetracks—the dramatic irony leaves him as a Narcissus bitten and framed (in all senses) by the cartoonist/narrator: ‘His star was high in the heavens. With the eye of his mind he saw a long procession of turf triumphs, a long vista of days and nights, and in them, round them, of them—Helen Bellow’ (Galsworthy 89). He ends up not only looking at his own caricature but looking like it: ‘by an odd coincidence, as he stood there, the artist’s glazed look came over his eyes, the little line sprang up between them’ (Galsworthy 89). The final stroke of irony is given when George, hearing people coming, fears to be seen but obviously for the wrong reasons: ‘To have been caught thus gazing at himself would have jarred [not on his sense of ridicule but] on his sense of what was right’ (Galsworthy 89). How the rules of the club are framed (defined), and who frames them, is clearly at stake.

11In A Room of His Own, Barbara Black devotes eighteen enlightening pages to The Forsyte Saga but, for understandable reasons, chose to omit The Country House. Although it is less read and studied now, some parallels with Galsworthy’s masterpiece are striking. The Man of Property, the first part of the saga published in 1906, also starts with a party (an engagement—it is a shooting-party in The Country House), also at ‘the moment of eminence’ (Black 202) of the dynasty, in remarkable similar terms: ‘June 15, 1886, about four in the afternoon’ (cited in Black 202), ‘The year was 1891, the month October, the day Monday’ (Galsworthy 3). Soames Forsyte and Horace Pendyce share the same desire to protect ‘the feudal system’ (Galsworthy 3). In Chancery, the second volume of the trilogy, shows Soames looking at ‘this shrieking, whistling, dancing dervish of a crowd [which] was swarming. From the club windows his own kind were looking out on them with regulated amusement. They didn’t realise!’ (cited in Black 210). Again, the parallel is obvious. What I called Galsworthy’s visual writing in the introduction is manifold: his use of technèmes (windows, doors, walls) structures ‘the ethics of interpersonal relations, the interface between the self and the other’ (Mukherji xviii). However, although windows are made of glass, they represent ‘the first degree of opacity’ for glass is ‘both medium and barrier’ (Armstrong 7), while frames (both real and symbolic) encapsulate the social and the psychological, and provide the narrator with representational devices to write his chronicle of the decline of a family. ‘Both site and metaphor’ (Black 203), the Stoics’ club, because of its archetypal building and decoration, and also because of its combination of eccentric rules and willingness to stand for things ‘simple, permanent and perfect’ (Galsworthy 87) was the perfect trope for the author to exert his pictorial social satire.

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Armstrong, Isobel. Victorian Glassworks: Glass Culture and the Imagination 1830–1880. Oxford: OUP, 2008.

Bergson, Henri. Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic. 1911. Transl. C. Brereton and F. Rothwell. New York: Macmillan, 1928.

Black, Barbara. A Room of His Own. A Literary-Cultural Study of Victorian Clubland. Athens: Ohio UP, 2012.

Bourdieu, Pierre. “On the Family as Realized Category”. Theory, Culture & Society 13:3 (1996): 19–26.

Dufresne, John. Is Life Like This? New York: Norton, 2010.

Galsworthy, John. The Country House. 1907. London: Heinemann, 1927.

Griffiths, Arthur. Clubs and Clubmen. London: Hutchinson, 1907.

Louvel, Liliane. Le Tiers pictural. Pour une critique intermédiale. Rennes : PUR, 2010.

Mukherji, Subha, ed. Thinking on Thresholds: The Poetics of Transitive Space. London: Anthem, 2011.

Nevill, Ralph. London Clubs: Their History and Treasures. London: Chatto & Windus, 1911.

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1 See in particular “On the family as realized category”, Theory, Culture & Society 13:3 (1996): 19–26.

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Référence électronique

Maxime Leroy, « Social Iconotext: the Stoics’ Club in John Galsworthy’s The Country House (1907) », Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens [En ligne], 81 Printemps | 2015, mis en ligne le 01 juin 2015, consulté le 27 mars 2017. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/cve.1994

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Maxime Leroy

Maxime Leroy is Senior lecturer at the Université de Haute-Alsace. The principal focus of his research is authorial paratext and image/text relations in British fiction from the period 1830-1940. He is the editor of Charles Dickens and Europe (Cambridge Scholars, 2013).

Maxime Leroy est Maître de conférences à l’université de Haute-Alsace. Ses recherches portent sur le paratexte auctorial et les rapports image/texte dans les romans britanniques de 1830 à 1940. Il a dirigé l’ouvrage Charles Dickens and Europe (Cambridge Scholars, 2013).

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