Family relationships

Alec’s childhood is presented as unhappy because of the conflict between his parents and his mother’s spiteful, cold nature.

In the opening scene of the novel - as he ponders how his execution will affect his parents - his only comment about his mother is “My heart doesn’t bleed for her.”

Through this surprising indifference to her feelings, Johnston immediately draws our attention to dysfunctional family relationships.

Unhappy marriage

When the narrative flashes back to Alec’s childhood we see how unhappy his parents’ marriage is. Therefore, it becomes clearer why Alec has pondered that his father “may be better off dead”.

The marital relationship in the household is shown to be tense with conflict. Alec’s parents seem to hate each other.

Alicia looks at Frederick “with contempt” and his voice is described as “cold” when he responds to her.

Alec imagines they will “grow old immaculately, their implacable hatred of each other hidden from the world”.

It is hardly surprising that - since this relationship is what Alec has seen of love and marriage - he tells Jerry “I will live alone”.

Relationship with Jerry

The parent child relationships in Alec’s family are also strained, especially between mother and son.

This is why his friendship with Jerry is so important.

He describes his time with Jerry in idealised terms which is in sharp contrast with the terse prose used when depicting his family life.

Even Alec’s description of the sumptuous surroundings in his house are tinged with coldness as he calls the dining room “unwelcoming”, with light that “lay on the walls and furniture without kindness”.

The cold distant nature of all the relationships in the house seems reflected in the furnishings of the house itself.

Alec’s ability - learned through living with his parents - to “become at will as still and invisible as a chair or a bowl of flowers” conveys poignantly how he has little voice or joy in his household.

Relationship with Alicia

Johnston presents Alec’s relationship with his mother as one fraught with tension. He is rarely relaxed in her company.

She is shown to be a cold and distant mother who gives little affection.

The only real fondness she seems to show is for the swans in her garden, who she refers to as “my loves” in “a voice so unlike her own recognisable voice”.

Alec is so unused to hearing her express affection that he says, “for a moment I felt a glow of love for her”.

It is significant of course that she uses this voice for the swans but not for her son, and this reflects her cold approach to her child.

Alec - especially as he gets older - has a better relationship with his father than he does with his mother.

Relationship with Frederick

Frederick is shown to care about Alec’s welfare when he argues his case for sending him to school and not wanting him to go to war, even though he loses both these arguments.

As Alec gets older his father suggests “Perhaps the time has come for us to get to know each other a little.” This shows that their relationship has been distant when Alec was a small child.

However, such situations were not uncommon - especially among upper class fathers and their children - in the early 20th century.

Frederick’s desperation when he pleads with Alicia to “Ponder deeply before you take away my son” shows that he cannot bear to lose Alec to war.

When Alec is finally leaving for the war his father says he cannot express what he calls “sentimentality”. Although his gesture in giving Alec money and a watch shows that he cares for and will miss his son.

"Triumphant blue"

Alec’s mother embraces him “with a splendidly theatrical gesture”, which shows that she is performing her farewell and that there is nothing authentic about it.

Johnston tells us that “Her eyes were the most triumphant blue.”

The use of the incongruous word “triumphant” shows that instead of grieving for her son, she feels she has won a battle to get him to go and fight.

The fact that the most emotional farewell is from the servants - who “gathered round clutching at my hands and touching my coat” - only serves to show just how distant the relationship is between Alec and his parents.

The only tears at his leaving are from Mrs Williams, the cook.