Date of publication
Hutchinson & Co
Dedicated to C. A. Dawson-Scott in affectionate admiration of the novelist and the woman. (US edition: To C. A. Dawson-Scott in affectionate admiration of her work).
‘Fathers and Children’. The Observer, 8 Oct. 1922, p. 4; Gould, Gerald. ‘New Fiction: The Optimist’. Saturday Review, Oct. 1922, p. 554; McQuilland, Louis J. ‘The Optimist’. John O’London’s Weekly, 9 Dec. 1922; Murray, D. L. ‘The Optimist’. The Times Literary Supplement, no. 1081, 5 Oct. 1922, p. 628.
Owen Quentillian has returned to visit the Morchard family at St Gwenllian, where he lived for a time as a boy while his parents were in India. He has been serving in the army during and apparently following the First World War; having inherited Stear, a nearby house, he makes a long visit to St Gwenllian while building work is being completed. St Gwenllian is the home of Canon Fenwick Morchard, a prolix conversationalist and extremely traditional father, and his children: Lucilla, the eldest, who has been housekeeper since the early death of her mother; Valeria, who has been involved in a fitful romance with a Captain Cuscaden, who plans to emigrate to Canada; fey and musical Flora, devoted to her father; and the annoying Adrian, whose war service was only of six months' duration, and is now looking vaguely for a career, having rejected the Church as an option. David Morchard, the eldest son, has known Owen in the army and is now in India. After a flashback to Owen's earlier visit to the Morchards, he becomes reacquainted with the family. The Canon remains committed to the principles of Christianity, which Owen has rejected; his views are more modern and progressive and he discounts entirely the Canon's creed of optimism after his war experiences. Owen has published some essays which Lucilla has read, admired, and kept firmly away from the Canon. The Canon's kindliness makes it difficult for his children to question his authority or go against his wishes, meaning that his daughters lead very restricted lives; Lucilla's evenings are spent looking up references for a work the Canon is writing on Leonidas of Alexandria. The Canon is very anxious about Adrian's career; Adrian is besotted with Olga Duffle who is the sociable daughter of wealthy, but lower-class, parents. Olga comes to tea, and plays tennis, and proves irritating to Owen, but he begins to enjoy Val's company; she and Flora speculate as to whether he is falling in love with Val. Val managed to undertake six months' war work in France, where she proved efficient and skilful in canteen work, and enjoyed herself. She wonders about marriage to Owen as a release from the boredom of home. Discussing her situation and need for work with Lucilla, she is advised to take a job or marry, which would be better, and discount her father's objections. Val convinces herself that her duty is to her father, but Lucilla says that she once had to make a similar choice between duty and a wish to live her own life, but that now that wish no longer exists. The family visit Stear, with a picnic. Owen and Val discuss vocations, and the need for self-expression; Owen refutes self-abnegation as a way of life. Adrian asks, indirectly whether the living at Stear might be given to him, if he were to become a clergyman. The family become aware of Val and Owen's friendship, and start leaving them alone, diplomatically; Owen goes away for a while, but discusses Val with Lucilla, who says that she wishes Val could take another job, or make another change in her life. Owen proposes to Val by letter, who responds that she can see good reasons for marrying but that she does not really love Owen, and asks if they can discuss this in person. He agrees to this but asks her to let him know if her opinion changes, and very soon they are engaged. Their wedding is to happen in January, after a minor disagreement as to whether they can marry in Advent - Owen sees this as irrelevant but Val would prefer not to hurt her father's feelings. They become aware that religious issues are a barrier between them. Olga comes for a musical evening at which Val's former suitor, Cuscaden, is also present. The emotion of the music stirs Val's feelings and she comes to realise that Owen cannot give her the love she desires. Stepping outside into the rain with Cuscaden, they embrace and declare their love. Val says that she will go to Canada with him. Caught, soaking wet, by her father, she explains that she is in love with George Cascaden and she will break off her engagement to Owen. The Canon is very shocked and disappointed. Owen accepts this in his modern and rational way, but is interviewed by the Canon who expects him to share the tragic view of the circumstances. Owen asks the Canon if he is not taking this too seriously, after which the Canon urges him to break down and give vent to his feelings. Owen urges the Canon to consent to her marriage with Cuscaden; discussing the issue with Lucilla, he finds her agreed that Val and Cuscaden should marry and go to Canada, and agrees to do what he can to help. Eventually the marriage is arranged with her father's blessing, and the couple can leave. The Morchards attend a party given by their neighbours, the Admastons, as part of which there will be a musical show. Adrian and Olga are among the performers. The Canon finds it vulgar and is not amused. The family is introduced to Mr Duffle, who talks about his wealth and his ambitions for Olga's marriage. The Canon is concerned about Adrian's infatuation with Olga, and when Mr Duffle comes to visit to complain that Adrian is taking up too much of Olga's time and must not follow her back to London, the Canon takes this very seriously indeed. Adrian does go back to London, but is recalled immediately by his father for a long interview. Adrian decides to go to London and look for work. The family discuss his plans together, and Adrian suggests that he will try journalism. His father agrees to increase his allowance so he can support himself in London until established. From Canada, it is heard that Val has had a son. The Canon's great work on Leonidas of Alexandria is finished, and he seeks a publisher, but is unsuccessful. Adrian begins to run up debts in London and earns himself a chastising letter from the Canon. Owen sees Adrian in London, and finds he has taken a job with a paper that has anti-religious leanings. The Canon is deeply hurt by this defection. Val is pregnant again and Lucilla wishes to travel out to Canada to help with the event, since she has no family there. The Canon is against the plan, but Lucilla decides it is best to go, even if her father is not in favour. Flora takes on the housekeeping while Lucilla is away, and is glad of the opportunity, but shocked that Lucilla can disregard her father's authority. Owen hears that David Morchard has died suddenly, and writes his condolences to Flora; he then visits St Gwenllian. Flora is concerned by the lack of letters of condolences from David's colleagues in India, and worries that he may have committed suicide. Owen agrees to help her find out the truth. A letter comes, written by David before his death, that explains that he was about to be cited as co-respondent in a divorce case - he asks Flora to do anything she can for Mrs Carey, the wife in the case, who is returning to England. Flora keeps the facts of the case from the Canon, and arranges to meet Mrs Carey secretly with Owen. Mrs Carey tells the story of their relationship - she has had many flirtations and David was the last straw for her husband. Flora becomes convinced that David really cared for Mrs Carey and would not have failed her deliberately through suicide. Owen is concerned that the meeting, and the facts, have been kept from the Canon, but Flora is determined to maintain the subterfuge. Lucilla returns from Canada and Owen visits the family. After dinner the Canon reads one of Owen's essays, and is disappointed by his modern way of thinking. Flora becomes unwell with some kind of depressive illness. Lucilla is worried, and consults Owen, who agrees that Flora is unbalanced. Flora rejects medical help but cries more and more and eventually blurts out that she feels useless. Flora begins to think of joining an Anglican convent; Lucilla remains convinced that she is ill and should not be taking such a step. Owen joins the family for Flora's last night at home, and she sings Lead, Kindly Light; Owen marvels at the Canon's ability to accept, with love, Flora's depature. He and Lucilla discuss the Canon's faith, and Lucilla points out that there is no need to despise the religious for believing in what Owen sees as illusions. The Canon becomes gravely ill. Adrian returns home to see him, and promises to leave his secularist newspaper. Lucilla confides in Owen that she had once wanted to go to college, but her father's unwillingness had caused her to rethink her position and sacrifice her ambitions; she now believes she was wrong to have done this, although she has not been unhappy in the path she took. The Canon dies. A year later, Owen visits Lucilla at Torquay where she is living as companion to a relative. He asks her to marry him and, after a discussion of the rational reasons for doing so - Owen is lonely, and Lucilla needs a home. After confessing that she has been in love with him for some time, Lucilla accepts him.
First World War fatherhood mental illness nuns religion women's work