Monday, August 19, 2013

The Little Lady of the Big House by Jack London

Love among the flawless
Dick Forrest owns a sizeable chunk of farmland in northern California. A thoroughly modern agriculturalist, he raises all manner of livestock and crops, all of the highest quality, using the latest, most advanced scientific methods. Ensconced within these fertile lands is his home, a palatial estate combining the best of traditional and modern architecture. In his youth Dick led a life of adventure, and now that he has put down some roots, he applies the same adventurous spirit to his agricultural ventures. Sharing in this pleasant and prosperous life is his wife Paula, an exceptionally attractive woman who likewise succeeds at all she touches. She plays piano like a professional pianist and breeds horses like a professor of animal husbandry. This remarkable couple surrounds themselves with a rotating entourage of family, friends, and scholars. Every night is a dinner party in which wine and song are accompanied by spirited debates on various and sundry topics. Thus the reader is treated to chapters on philosophy, music, poetry, animal husbandry, and—not uncommon for London—the superiority of the white race. Into this eclectic intellectual enclave wanders Evan Graham, an old friend who is described as being almost exactly like Dick, but a bachelor. He quickly develops an attraction towards Paula, admires her secretly, and tries to ascertain if the feeling is mutual.

That’s pretty much all that happens for the first twenty chapters. Most of the book consists of the many dinner-party and horseback-ride conversations on London’s pet subjects. The story of Dick Forrest is like a fantasy autobiography for London. Anything London ever dabbled in, Dick excels at. He runs the kind of farm London would want to run, he lives in the house London would love to build, and he’s married to the perfect woman of London’s dreams. Because of his affinity for Dick and Paula, London spends so much time describing this idealized couple and their varied interests that there’s very little room left for plot.

Thankfully, in the latter third of the book, the love triangle actually gets quite interesting. To its credit, The Little Lady of the Big House is rarely boring. It’s just rather weird. Typically, the success of a love story hinges on how well the reader can identify with the characters. Today’s readers, however, will likely find they have more in common with medieval kings and queens than with Dick and Paula Forrest. Often in literature a character’s faults contribute to the situation they find themselves in, but that’s not the case here, simply because London doesn’t allow his three lead characters to have any faults.

The dialogue throughout is a mixture of pretentious poetry, intellectual posturing, and self-invented slang that is so removed from actual speech it effectively divorces the story from reality. Dick is frequently asked to compose impromptu songs, which he does with relish. (“Hear me! I am Eros! I stamp upon the hills!”) The Forrests have Native American pet names for each other. They refer to their Asian servants by the demeaning appellations of Ah Ha, Oh My, and Oh Dear. Only in Jack London’s house, perhaps, would people ever speak in this way. In fact, The Little Lady of the Big House, originally published in 1916, is less valuable for its literary merits than for what it says about Jack London. Scholars and fans of his work, looking for insight into his philosophies of life, love, and death; his views on agricultural science; his favorite leisure activities, cocktails, songs, and poems; will find plenty of material here. In terms of literary quality it is a mediocre novel at best, but it’s a pleasantly unconventional work that only London could have written.

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