This 1918 novel begins with: “Major Amberson had ‘made a fortune’ in 1873, when other people were losing fortunes, and the magnificence of the Ambersons began then.’ Set in a fictional town in the mid-west of the United States, the story is a snapshot in time describing the downfall of the rich and powerful family over a period of three generations. It is wonderfully illustrative, describing the gradual influence of the industrial age and the introduction of innovative inventions. Those who didn’t keep up were sooner or later left along the wayside, while automobiles and the like made their irrevocable mark on the landscape. Life became faster; fashions changed to comply with new discoveries; towns grew into cities as industry expanded; and attitudes altered towards the idle rich.
George Amberson Minafer, the major’s grandson, is the main character of the story. Spoiled to excess by his adoring mother, and despised by the townsfolk for his arrogant sense of entitlement and bullying ways, he is incapable of looking beyond the milieu of old money and his own self-importance. Those forced to suffer him on a daily basis, long for the day when he will finally get his ‘comeuppance.’
Unfortunately for young George, he falls in love with Lucy, the daughter of Eugene Morgan, an inventor of automobiles and a forward-looking entrepreneur. Eugene is new money and a threat to everything George stands for. Eugene was also almost engaged to George’s mother, Isabelle, and although she went on to marry George’s father and remained loyal and devoted to him, the sparks never totally died between Eugene and Isabelle.
Young George’s bitter stubbornness and old-school sense of propriety land him in more than one spot of bother, and as the family fortune diminishes and the Amberson name slips further into obscurity, the old townsfolk, if they would have remembered them, would have been quite satisfied to see that George finally did get what he deserved.
This is a most enjoyable read. Winner of the 1919 Pulitzer Prize and number 100 on the Modern Library`s list of top fiction, it gives a remarkable insight into the attitudes and lifestyles of people living at the time – of their foppery as well as their hardships; of their initial resistance to new inventions; and the manner in which people adapted old societal standards and re-invented a new, bold society.
It`s interesting how a lot of people initially reacted towards automobiles as they first went tearing about the countryside. The drivers and their passengers would often be assailed with cries of ‘git a hoss’ by baffled onlookers who couldn`t comprehend that the noisy vehicles could ever be more than a passing fad.