Sunday, September 14, 2014

Taylor Caldwell, Never Victorious, Never Defeated


Opening Passage:

It was generally agreed with indignation by a few, that it had been a great scandal. Cornelia deWitt Marshall had not only insulted herself, but all her friends, and the company which her grandfather had founded.

Summary: Never Victorious, Never Defeated is the story of the deWitt family, owners of the Interstate Railroad Company, over the course of one hundred years. We begin with Aaron deWitt watching enigmatically as his two sons, Rufus and Stephen, struggle over the railroad he built. Stephen receives the railroad, to the shock of everyone, since Rufus, extraverted, charming, and ruthless, is almost universally admired. Stephen eventually dies and Rufus takes over. The next generation is Laura, Stephen's daughter, and Cornelia, daughter of Rufus and his first wife Lydia, then, later, Norman and Jon, sons of Rufus and his second wife Estelle. Laura marries the up-and-coming son of a senator, Patrick Peale, while Cornelia marries the poor but savvy and inventive Allan Marshall. Norman and Jon, whose relationship with their mother is more than slightly twisted, never marry. Cornelia and Allan have Tony, Dolores, and DeWitt; Laura and Patrick have Miles, Fielding, and Mary. Tony becomes a priest, Dolores marries an English lord and has Alex, DeWitt marries Mary Peale and has Rufus. This being a Taylor Caldwell novel, there are more than a few mismatched marriages, sons who despise their fathers, brutal philanthropists, and political schemers. It helps a great deal in reading the novel if one is clear about the family tree.

The plot is as sprawling as the family tree, but, as the title suggests, a major theme of the work is that neither victory nor defeat are ever actually permanent, and that this fact sometimes is the source of despair and sometimes is the source of hope. There is a constant interplay throughout between those who are ruthlessly without conscience -- whether they are vulgar materialists or high-talking idealists, and whether they are malicious or simply and genially selfish -- and those who are more temperamentally humane, and I think it is this that is the primary struggle that Caldwell has in mind. It takes radically different forms in every generation because it is not an ideological war or necessarily driven by personal animus: it is a struggle for dominance between two opposed ways of looking at the world and two inconsistent ways of living a life. The people who really turn out poorly are those who try to straddle the line; those who fall on one side or the other can have success after their fashion -- but, except by luck, only after their fashion. And, like wheat and tares, they are all mixed together till judgment day.

Favorite Passage: From Chapter 38:

They were sitting in Patrick's library in their house on Mountain Heights, some few miles from the deWitt home. The house had been furnished by Patrick; Laura's suggestions had been ignored. I should have known, then, that he had no respect for anyone but himself, thought Laura, now. He is, to himself, the rare human being incapable of making mistakes. A tyrant. Dogmatic. He should never have been in the Senate; I am glad he was defeated the last time. Yet, so blameless, so righteous. The house resembles him: thing, cold, austere, with windows that seem to repel even the hottest summer sun or spring warmth; I have never been comfortable here, in spite of the furnaces and the fires. I have always hated this house, the dusky, lean furniture, the tapestries, the dim draperies, the faded old rugs which were never brilliant even when new, the somber paintings. All the corridors are narrow and ghostly, and filled with echoes. A Pharisee's house; the mirrors seem to hold only his own image.

Recommendation: It isn't as strong as Captains and the Kings, I think, but as long as you can keep the family tree straight, it makes for a quite gripping tale. Recommended.

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