In this 200th anniversary year of the birth of Anthony Trollope, I plan to read at least a few more of his books. I’ve begun with John Caldigate (picture from here), one of Catherine Pope’s Top 10 Trollopes & I think it’s now one of mine as well.
John Caldigate has a fractious relationship with his father. Young John has gone to Cambridge & racked up gambling debts with an unscrupulous character called Davis. His father doesn’t consider him worthy to inherit his estate &, even though the estate is entailed, he now favours a nephew instead. John has no feelings of family pride & readily accepts his father’s offer to buy his reversion to the title. John can then pay his debts & make a new start. He decides to go to Australia with a friend, Dick Shand, & try his luck at gold mining. Before leaving England, John finds himself mildly entangled with two young ladies – Dick Shand’s sister, Maria & his cousin Julia Babington. John, however, is attracted to Hester Bolton, the daughter of his father’s legal advisor, a man who disapproves of John’s flippant disregard for his family name & fortune.
John & Dick travel to Australia second class to save money which excites quite a bit of comment among the first class passengers. John becomes friendly with a pretty young widow, Mrs Smith. Mrs Smith’s antecedents are obscure – she claims to have made a living on the stage before marrying unwisely – & everyone warns John against the intimacy. However, by the time they reach Melbourne, John has become entangled with Mrs Smith & they are engaged “unless something happens to part us” as John ungallantly adds. John realises his mistake as soon as he goes ashore but feels obliged to regard himself as engaged, although Mrs Smith has left him free to pursue his gold mining plans without the burden of taking her along.
The two young men travel to New South Wales with a letter of introduction to a friend of a friend, Tom Crinkett. They set themselves up with a claim with the help of another miner & they prosper. Well, John prospers. Dick takes to drink & ends up as a shepherd in the Queensland outback, helped out with money from John from time to time. Mrs Smith, meanwhile, has gone back on the stage in Melbourne & then goes to Sydney with her show, performing under the name of Mademoiselle Cettini. John hears of her from a former shipboard acquaintance & goes to Sydney to see her. She returns to the goldfields with him & they live together for a time before parting.
Over the next few years, John’s fortunes rise & he eventually returns to England with a handsome fortune & a new appreciation of his family estate. John & his father have been corresponding & their relations have thawed so that by the time he returns home, his father is proud & happy to see him. Old Mr Caldigate has become disillusioned with the nephew whom he once favoured over his son & decides to reinstate John as his heir. John marries Hester Bolton, despite the disapproval of her father & her intensely religious mother. Just after their first child is born, John receives a letter from Mrs Smith, signing herself Euphemia Caldigate & demanding to be recognized as his wife. Mrs Smith had bought shares in John’s mine along with Tom Crinkett when John sold out & returned home. After John had left Australia, the mine petered out & the unlucky partners asked John to refund some of their money. He refused & the two travelled to England, hoping to convince him in person. As a result of the information they lay against him, John is charged with bigamy & committed to stand trial. Is John really a bigamist or are Crinkett & Mrs Smith trying to blackmail him using circumstantial evidence?
John Caldigate is an unusual Victorian novel because it shows a rather weak-willed young man as a hero. John starts off as an easily-led spendthrift who is sent out to the colonies almost in disgrace. He flirts with a young woman on board ship, makes her promises, lives with her unmarried & then tires of her. He works hard & is good to Dick Shand when he goes off the rails but returns to England with his fortune. He only offers to refund some of the money paid by Crinkett & Smith when he fears a scandal. The fact that he pays them the money tells against him at his trial although his motive, in the end, was honourable. There is genuine doubt as to whether or not he has married Mrs Smith because he has been such a slippery character.
The unravelling of the evidence against Caldigate by a Post Office worker called Bagwax (one of Trollope’s silliest names, along with his colleague, Mr Curlydown) makes good use of Trollope’s own expertise as a Post Office employee. Unfortunately Bagwax is fond of explaining his theories in minute detail & this part of the narrative drags a little. Our heroine, Hester Bolton, is also a wishy washy character, a very conventional heroine. She does have her moment of glory when she sits in the hall of her parents house for several days, refusing to move when they lock her in to prevent her living with a man who they believe has tricked her into a bigamous marriage. Hester’s mother is a wonderful character, her religious convictions so strong that I wondered why she married at all. Maybe her religious leanings came on after her marriage? She doesn’t approve of John even before the bigamy allegation & does everything she can to prevent the marriage. When she’s overruled by her husband & her stepsons, she almost seems glad to be vindicated, even though it means her daughter’s ruin. On the whole, though, this was a great story with enough ambiguity in the storytelling & in the character of John Caldigate to make the trial & its aftermath very suspenseful.