The House with the Green Shutters by George Douglas Brown

Man is born to misery…

🙂 🙂 🙂

In the small town of Barbie in the east of Scotland, John Gourlay is a big man. His business has the monopoly on carrying goods in and out of the town and he uses the power this gives him over his neighbours to bully and lord it over them. The money he makes he ploughs into the house of the title, determined to show himself off as the town’s leading resident. But he’s not an intelligent man, and when changes begin to arrive in the shape of first a wily competitor and then the new railroad, he hasn’t the capacity to adapt. The townspeople, long tired of his bullying ways, look on like a gleeful Greek chorus as his business begins to fail. His one hope rests in his son, also John, a lazy, feckless boy who has always assumed that one day he will take over the business and become in his turn the big man of the town. Now Gourlay insists that young John go to the University in Edinburgh, to learn to be a minister. But there, young John will soon get into bad company and discover the delights of the demon drink…

Well, I’m willing to bet Brown would have got on well with my old friend John Steinbeck. They could have had misanthropy competitions to see who could be the most miserable. I’m tempted to suggest that Brown might have won. There is not a single glimmer of light in this utterly depressing monotone picture of how horrible humanity is. There is some humour, but all in the sense of us laughing at them, never with them. But mostly it’s a portrayal of people being small-minded, petty, cruel, bullying and vindictive. I searched the pages in the hopes of finding a character with any positive qualities at all, but I searched in vain. And starting miserable, it goes downhill from there, descending finally into a kind of orgy of alcoholism, madness and tragedy. Although the tragedy aspect didn’t really work, because by that stage I couldn’t have cared less what happened to any of these hideous people.

Book 59 of 90

Looking hard for the positives, the language, a mix of standard English with a liberal dose of Scots mixed in, is very well done. As an antiquated Scot I didn’t have much difficulty with it, but it might be a tougher read for people without a familiarity with the older Scots dialects. There are some wonderful descriptive passages of the town and country, and the characters are very well drawn and unfortunately quite believable, though there is a sneering quality to the writing of them that left me feeling that Brown probably had an over-healthy sense of his own superiority. The humour is mainly aimed at the mean-mindedness of the characters, and is therefore both amusing and off-putting at the same time. The darker aspects have a great sense of inevitability about them – a fatalism brought about by the heavily patriarchal culture, where the man may rule with as heavy a hand as he chooses. Alcohol is shown as the deeply destructive force it indeed has long been in Scottish culture, and still is, though I think to a somewhat lesser degree these days.

George Douglas Brown

But what is missing is any contrast or warmth. Even in hard-drinking Scotland, not all men were horrible to their wives and children, nor to each other. I understand that Brown was writing this, in 1901, as a realist reaction to the excessive sentimentality of the portrayal of Scottish village life in the earlier Scottish literary movement known as the Kailyard school, but I feel he’s gone way too far in the other direction. While I do recognise the character traits, cruelty and mean-spiritedness he shows as being an accurate depiction of the worst of Scottish culture, it is not the whole of it, and by giving nothing to contrast with it, Brown ultimately fails to make his town any more convincing than the twee villages of the writers he’s reacting against.

While critics hail this as one of the greatest Scottish classics, the reaction of those readers who have rated it on Goodreads seems to suggest that the majority don’t agree, and I’m with the majority on this one. I admire the skill of it, and the use of language, but it’s not an enjoyable read. And, while it is undoubtedly insightful about one aspect of Scottish culture, it certainly doesn’t give a full or rounded picture. However, if you’re ever feeling too happy and feel the need to be reminded that man is born to misery and that life is a vale of tears, I recommend it.

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46 thoughts on “The House with the Green Shutters by George Douglas Brown

  1. When I was younger I might have been more inclined to read a book with a strong literary style even if it was bleak or unbalanced in outlook. I don’t feel the need to do that now. I have a stronger sense of choosing to spend my time with contexts which I can appreciate more fully. So, although, in some ways I’m drawn to the Scottish context here, I think I can live without this story.
    ‘Antiquated Scot’, hmmm, some interesting images here 😉

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    • Haha – my kilt has lost its pleats and my sporran has gone bald… 😉

      Yes, I’m less patient with bleak books than I used to be. They just don’t seem to reflect true life to me any more than cosies do, but at least cosies are… well… cosy! I’m coming to the conclusion that I don’t much like Scottish lit-fic written by men from the twentieth century, with the notable exception of William McIlvanney. I seem to get on fine with men from before then and with women writing in the twentieth century. The few 20th C Scotsmen I’ve read all seem to take a very bleak view of the culture. I wonder why… or if I’ve just been unlucky in the ones I’ve chosen…

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  2. There must be a happy medium somewhere when it comes to depictions of Scotland in literature. The trouble is, I don’t think I’ve found it, so most of the Scottish literature I read really frustrates me, which is probably why I don’t read as much of it as I should. I would give this one a miss anyway, as I’m not in the mood for relentless misery right now.

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    • I’m coming to the conclusion that I really don’t enjoy 20th century Scottish lit-fic written by men – they seem to compete for who can make the culture looks worst. With the exception of William McIlvanney, of course! I’ve got on better with the few women 20th century Scottish authors I’ve tried, but on the whole I’ve vastly preferred the much earlier Scottish classics so far. I’m intrigued why it should all have got so bleak, though – what it says about the twentieth century national psyche. But of course, given how little I’ve read maybe I’ve just been unlucky with my choices…

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  3. Hmm…..I do like the idea of the look at Scotland of that time, FictionFan. The history does interest me. But, if I’m being honest, I prefer just a little more solid wit/hope/ray of light in what I read. It doesn’t have to be rainbows and unicorns (that can be annoying, too), but I do prefer some reason for hope. I’ll have to wait on this one, I think…

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    • Yes, I always like a book to be a bit more balanced – like life, which is rarely all bad or all good. I’m coming to the conclusion that most 20th century Scottish lit-fic seems to take a very bleak view of the culture and, while I’m kinda intrigued as to what that must say about the national psyche of the century, I can’t say it makes for enjoyable reading. Maybe they’ll all cheer up a bit in the 21st century… 😉

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  4. Sounds like a reader might be driven to the bottle after this one. 😞 While the time period is a draw, as Margot said, the “Steinbeck touch” (unrelenting darkness) just doesn’t appeal to me.

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    • Hahaha – yes! Maybe it was the books that caused the alcohol problem in the first place! Or maybe they’re more enjoyable if you’re drunk while reading – I might try that next time… 😉

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  5. Hard pass on this one, FF. There’s enough pain and misery going around right now that I surely don’t want to immerse myself in more via a book. But I’ve got to hand it to you, ma’am — reading a 3-star review by you is pure delight! Steinbeck? Yuck!!

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    • Haha – thank you! Yes, I felt it would be hard to equal Steinbeck for misery, but Brown gave it his best shot! 😉 I do think it would be good if authors could be a bit more balanced – life is rarely all bad or all all good…

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  6. I’ve noted this one down, as potential remedy for next time I get too cheerful 😉 Could you imagine sitting between Steinbeck and Brown to a dinner party? I think a few cocktails might be in order…

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    • Hahaha – I don’t think three bottles of straight whisky would be enough to get me through that! But I could put all these tips I’ve gathered from vintage murder mysteries to good use… 😉

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  7. haha good to know there’s something i can read in case I get TOO happy 🙂 Yikes this seems depressing. And considering I probably wouldn’t even be able to understand the writing, i can easily cross this off my TBR!

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  8. Hahaha! I consider myself a generally happy person but I’ve never thought of being too happy as a problem. I’ll keep this in mind in case my optimism becomes overpowering! I’m curious about the change in Scots dialect – is it quite noticeable between generations when speaking to one another or do those who speak the older dialect go back and forth pretty comfortably?

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    • Yes, definitely one to boost your misery levels, should you ever feel the need! 😉 It was more noticeable when I was a kid – lots of older people then spoke quite broad Scots. But my generation and even my parents were taught to “speak properly” at school – i.e., speak standard English rather than Scots dialects. And then TV came along, with all the presenters and news readers speaking “received pronunciation” – i.e., educated English – so that now almost everyone pretty much speaks standard English, though still with different regional accents and the occasional regional word or expression. But nearly every Scot can “speak properly” when required. There’s a kind of backlash happening now, but I suspect it’s too late – standard English is pretty much our national language now, I think. And lots of people – like me – whose parents were also well educated would have real difficulty trying to speak Scots authentically…

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    • I’m finding that with a lot of the 20th century classics I’ve been reading – the ones written by men, at least. I’m intrigued as to why they all took such a bleak view of their fellow Scots…

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    • I’ve completely lost the plot. I fell asleep halfway through Fabulous Fabio this morning and woke up with two irate cats demanding why lunch was late! Just about to check the schedules for this morning… 😀 🎾

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      • I have a sad story regarding today’s schedule which I know you’ll appreciate and sympathise with me about.
        Drum roll….I was offered a ticket to tonight’s game (Nadal and Kyrgios) through work which I had to decline because of a conflict of interest (a tender process). I’ll be on the couch in front of the tv though!

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        • Oh, no!!!!!! Poor you! That’s so unfair! Have you ever been to the Open before? Have lots of medicinal chocolate – you deserve it!

          Who are you supporting? I’m with Rafa of course, but I’ve liked Kyrgios better this tournament – he seems to be taking it all more seriously at last. I’m hoping it’ll be a five-set thriller! 😀

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          • I was torn, but Kyrgios is growing on me. I hate seeing players destroy their racquets, it is so disrespectful and he keeps doing it, but he wears his heart on his sleeve and that can be really appealing. Watching the game last night (and the people in Kyrgios’ box) made me think of how many different backgrounds Australians come from.
            I’ve been a few times before but won’t get there this year (and will probably never have the opportunity for such fantastic seats again). Sometimes I’ve had a ground pass and moved between games all day and I’ve also attended several night games. The atmosphere makes the experience, of course. The Australian crowds are generally good-natured and fair.
            I do contract work and for the past few years worked in a building which overlooks Melbourne Park so looked out the window for two weeks 🙂 This year I’m working further away and can’t see the precinct, but there are loads of tourists on the streets who are clearly tennis fans and the AO vehicles (Kias, in case you were wondering!!!) are everywhere on the streets. The other morning I walked past the hotel where the ball kids are staying and saw a horde of them having a buffet breakfast.
            I’ve seen a few people who I suspect are players too, probably juniors, but haven’t recognised any of them.
            I was wondering, who does the commentary for the games on your tv stations? We have Jim Courier, John McEnroe and Todd Woodbridge for the bigger matches.

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            • I never mind when they get mad at themselves, but I hate when they have a go at the umpire or start being really unsporting. Overall I think he did much better this year and I liked him far more than usual. It was a good game too!

              I’ve never made it to Wimbledon – it’s really hard to get tickets for the big matches. And in truth, although the atmosphere is fun I rather like watching on TV where the experts can tell me what I should be watching for. I’ve been to smaller tournaments in the past and over here it usually means sitting in the rain for hours waiting for play to begin! We’re kinda disappointed they’ve changed the format of the Davis Cup because for a few years the British legs have been held in Glasgow, giving us a chance to see Andy Murray live. Haha – the ball kids deserve a good buffet – it’s a dangerous job! 😉

              I watch on Eurosport and they’ve got a pretty good line-up. Frew MacMillan and Mats Wilander are the regulars (Frew’s great, Mats is awful) with a variety of other people who come and go, mainly Brits like Andrew Castle (who’s a much better commentator than he ever was a tennis player) and Jo Durie and Annabel Croft. But we do get McEnroe doing a bit of analysis between matches, and he’s a stalwart of the commentary box on the BBC’s coverage of Wimbledon – I could listen to him for ever! Boris Becker and Greg Rusedski pop up frequently too at major tournaments – both good. And Andy had a go at commentating for Wimbledon when he was out injured – fun! Sadly we never get Jim Courier – I always love his post-match interviews with the players. 😀

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            • The popular opinion here is that Kyrgios is growing up and that we like the man he looks like being.
              It was a good game. Rafa’s playing tonight, so I’m having a quick look online before getting back to the couch! I like watching at home too, I can go to the fridge and get an icy-pole, I’m in the shade and I’m comfortable on the couch. It gets very hot at Melbourne Park, not much breeze and it’s easy to get sunburned. Not to mention the cost! It is a lovely day out, but it is an expensive treat for most people. You can imagine how excited I was to have been offered the tickets before I realised I wouldn’t be able to use them!!!
              Thank you for taking the time to answer my question about the commentators, it is one of those things I’ve been wondering about for years. Jim Courier is terrific, he connects really well with nearly everyone he interviews and his interviews are fun.

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            • Yes, some of them take a while to mature. Andy was terrible for his first few years in the major circuit but he turned out well in the end. 😀

              I’m devastated about the Rafa result, especially since the commentators immediately began talking about this being the end for him! Mind you, they’ve been saying that every time Roger loses a match for about ten years. Haha – I had to laugh at your shade and your icy-pole! I watched from under a quilt with a mug of hot chocolate as the wind howled round and the rain battered the windows. Yesterday it snowed! I do sympathise over the tickets – these chances don’t come along very often. I once got tickets to the Open golf through work, and it was quite fun but I’m not really a golf fan so I felt it was wasted on me a bit. But I did once get invited through work to have a day at Royal Ascot – I don’t know if you know about it, it’s a big horse-racing event – and that was fab fun! Champagne breakfast and a chance to wear a hat! I saw Jim Courier today interviewing Thiem but I was too devastated to enjoy it… 😉

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            • Yes, my joy in the tennis has waned slightly with Rafa out. Losing Barty today too was disappointing too. Someone sitting near me at work was watching her game on her phone and called out the scores for her neighbours.
              It was hot today and is to be hotter tomorrow, 41 degrees Celsius, I feel sorry for the players. They probably wish they were watching from their lounge rooms eating icy-poles too (or snuggled in a blanket and drinking hot chocolate).
              Golf tickets would be wasted on me too, but Royal Ascot would have been fantastic!
              Years ago I worked for a newspaper in a country town and often got media tickets for things. One event I really enjoyed was a ride in a rally car through a bush ‘stage’ and another at a speedway track. I’ve been quite lucky over the years when I stop to think about it.

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            • I’ve hardly seen any of the women’s this year – I decided I had to sleep sometimes and those pesky men take so long to play a match! I can’t imagine how anyone can play sport in that heat… *shudders*
              Oh, that would have been great one for you! Yes, I often think employers should realise more what a great boost the odd treat like that is to staff morale. I spent most of my working life in the public sector where freebies were frowned upon, but got a few treats in my few years in the private sector – all memorable! 😀

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  9. I think you know where I stand on reminders that “man is born to misery and that life is a vale of tears” — I just need to watch/listen/read the news as an aide-mémoire. I’m just glad that you’ve read this so that I don’t have to! 🙂

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    • Haha – yes, I’m not looking for every book to be all full of sweetness and light but a happy medium would be good! It’s beginning to look like 20th century Scottish authors were a bit of a miserable bunch… 😉

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