One thing which sets this novel apart is Silberrad's expert knowledge of the two fields of study which become important plot motivators: horticulture and chemistry. The protagonist, Julia Polkington, goes to Holland in search of the all-important blue daffodil bulb, and the middle section of the book takes place on the Van Heigen's bulb farm there. Silberrad's descriptions of the bulbs and growing practices of the Van Heigens are detailed and betray an expert knowledge of this subject. There is a good reason for this: along with all the novels which she produced, Silberrad also wrote a non-fiction book after a trip to the Netherlands entitled Dutch Bulbs and Gardens.
As much as I appreciate the realism and accuracy included in her work, this is not what I enjoyed most about The Good Comrade. What I like best about the novel is the character development and also the various thorny issues which are examined in it.
The Polkingtons are a very interesting family. They exist in the nebulous area between the upper and middle classes, with the monetary resources to exist in neither. They have a few familial connections in the upper class which Mrs. Polkington in particular wishes to capitalize on, hoping to marry off at least one of her daughters to a man with a title. They have more connections in the middle class- like Mrs. Polkington's banker brother- and the family makes use of them to fund their attempts at social climbing. They hit up their relations for money whenever their bills get completely out of control and they need to keep their creditors away. Their extended family generally comes through with the funds, mostly because they don't want the embarrassment of having relatives become bankrupt and homeless.
The pretentious and fraudulent lifestyle of the Polkingtons contrasts sharply with the lifestyle of the Van Heigens. When describing her employers, Julia says that the front rooms in their house are the same as the back rooms, using their house as a metaphor for their lives. There is no artifice: what you see is what you get. Although they too are capable of falling victim to judging by appearance, as shown by their reaction to Julia's disastrous trip with Rawson-Clew to the dunes. The Van Heigens are aware that nothing more improper occurred than their being forced to spend the night outside in each others' company. What really seems to upset them is the appearance of scandal, which they think reflects on the propriety of their own household. The novel, however, deals more gently with the Van Heigens because, despite their flaws, they actually strive for virtuous living as well as the appearance of it; they are not hypocrites.
In my next post, I'll look a little more closely at the two main characters- Julia and Rawson-Clew- and discuss a topic which the two talk about between themselves: what constitutes morality.