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Caroline Gordon: Penhally

Penhally is the family home of the Llewellyn family in Kentucky (near the Tennessee border), where Gordon is from. The book follows the fortunes of family from 1826 up to the time when Gordon wrote the book (i.e. a hundred years later). Though a story of a family it is also, in many respects, the story of the South. The story starts with Nicholas Llewellyn deciding not to divide his inheritance of the Penhally property with his half-brother, Ralph, leading to a family split (the two brothers never speak to one another again). His reason is that he wishes to maintain the grandeur of this branch of the family (the rest of the family is in Virginia).

Neither Nicholas nor his successors feel fully in control of Penhally, as it is entailed down the generations. Nor are they in control of their lives, as they are dominated firstly by the house, then love and then outside events (initially the Civil War, then events in the South after the Civil War, such as emancipation) and finally personal failure (fratricide and wanton spending). The fratricide is only the final nail in the coffin, after the house has passed out of the family.

Is Penhally the South? I am sure that Gordon did not intend it to be but, in many respects, it could seem to be, as it passes from an area where land and honour are all important to an area where only money matters, with the change being caused partially by outside events and partially by the internal actors. Her treatment of the Civil War is interesting as it is not a war that rushes in and changes lives as in, say, Gone with the Wind. Rather it creeps in, gradually overwhelming all of them, whether by the expense of helping the cause, the depredations of the Yankees or, more importantly, the death of family members. Nor does she dwell on the effects, jumping directly from the death of Ralph’s son Charles in 1863 to events in 1900.

Ford Madox Ford described Penhally as the best American novel that I know. This is undoubtedly an exaggeration but it as good a history of the South as you will get.

Publishing history

First published 1931 by Charles Scribner’s Sons