Salem Chapel – Margaret Oliphant

Salem Chapel (photo from here) is a very odd book that begins in Barsetshire & ends up reading like a sensation novel by Wilkie Collins. It’s one of the Chronicles of Carlingford, the most popular series of novels written by Margaret Oliphant, a productive & popular 19th century novelist.

Arthur Vincent is a young Dissenting minister, appointed to his first post to Salem Chapel in Carlingford. The Dissenters of Carlingford are mostly tradesmen, very proud of their ability to build a new red brick chapel for their congregation & determined to get their money’s worth from the young preacher they’ve appointed. They are also proud to be distinguished from the Church-going folk on the other side of Grange Lane, in thrall, as they see it, to the Establishment.

As he walked about Carlingford making acquaintance with the place, it occurred to the young man, with a thrill of not ungenerous ambition, that the time might shortly come when Salem Chapel would be all too insignificant for the Nonconformists of this hitherto torpid place. He pictured to himself how, by-and-by, those jealous doors in Grange Lane would fly open at his touch, and how the dormant minds within would awake under his influence. It was a blissful dream to the young pastor.

Arthur Vincent soon discovers that the ideals he held for his future as a minister to his flock collide with his distaste for the position he finds himself in – beholden to men such as Mr Tozer the grocer & Mr Pigeon the poulterer for his livelihood & expected to graciously take their advice. Vincent is also dismayed at being expected to visit his flock to drink tea & make small talk. He also soon realises that he is expected to marry according to the wishes of the congregation (there are dire hints about the unsuitability of a previous minister’s wife) & sees that blushing Phoebe Tozer is aiming for the post. Mr Tozer is not shy in setting out the flock’s expectations,

Mr Vincent, sir,” said Tozer solemnly, pushing away his empty teacup, and leaning forward over the table on his folded arms, “them ain’t the sentiments for a pastor in our connection. That’s a style of thing that may do among fine folks, or in the church where there’s no freedom; but them as chooses their own pastor, and pays their own pastor, and don’t spare no pains to make him comfortable, has a right to expect different.Them ain’t the sentiments, sir, for Salem folks. … and this I know, that a minister as has to please his flock, has got to please his flock whatever happens, and neither me nor no other man can make it different; and that Mrs Vincent, as has seen life, can tell you as well as I can.”

All this is very much what I expected from a Carlingford novel. The tone changes when Vincent meets Mrs Hilyard, a mysterious woman living in poverty & sewing for a living. Mrs Hilyard attends the Chapel although she’s obviously of a higher social class than most Dissenters. She also receives visits from the beautiful young Dowager, Lady Western, & seems to be on terms of affectionate friendship with her. Vincent is puzzled by Mrs Hilyard & curious to know her story. He’s also dazzled by Lady Western & dismays the Chapel goers by accepting an invitation to dinner & appearing to court her notice. Vincent receives letters from his mother in the country telling him about his sister, Susan’s, suitor, a man called Fordham.

This is the beginning of the sensation plot which involves impersonation, abduction, attempted bigamy & accusations of murder. Vincent overhears Mrs Hilyard arguing with a man, Colonel Mildmay, about a child that she is desperate to keep from him. When Vincent lets her know that he has heard her conversation, Mrs Hilyard asks that the child, her daughter, be sent to Vincent’s mother for safekeeping, little realising that this action will put the girl in danger. The disappearance of Susan Vincent, in company with Mrs Hilyard’s daughter, Alice, & Susan’s suitor, sparks a chase from one end of England to the other & Vincent’s position at Salem Chapel is put at risk by his unconventional behaviour.

I have to say that, much as I enjoyed the book, the two halves really don’t mix very well. I wondered whether Mrs Oliphant felt obliged to add the sensational elements because of the success of novels like The Woman in White (Salem Chapel was published in 1863). It was certainly so successful that she was able to ask for a substantial price for her next book. Even for a sensation novel, there are just a few too many coincidences in the plot for me. Arthur Vincent is also a very unsympathetic character. Superior, impatient, ungracious, he ignores the proprieties & the obligations of his position. He becomes obsessed with his pursuit of Lady Western & jealous of those he perceives as his rivals. Even when he becomes a successful preacher, he finds it distasteful that the deacons rate his success based on the number of people who hear him preach & continually remind him that as they have appointed him, they can remove him at any time if he doesn’t give satisfaction. He’s the son of a minister & must have known that his flock was going to consist of tradespeople so why is he so snobbish about their houses & their daughters & their aspirations?

Salem itself, and the new pulpit, which had a short time ago represented to poor Vincent that tribune from which he was to influence the world, that point of vantage which was all a true man needed for the making of his career, dwindled into a miserable scene of trade before his disenchanted eyes – a preaching shop, where his success was to be measured by the seat-letting, and his soul decanted out into periodical issue under the seal of Tozer & Co. Such, alas! were the indignant thoughts with which, the old Adam rising bitter and strong within him, the young Nonconformist hastened home.

Arthur’s mother is another character I could have seen much less of. From the moment when she arrives in Carlingford after Arthur has alarmed her with her doubts about Susan’s suitor, she never stops talking & wailing & worrying about the proprieties. I know that a young girl’s reputation was a fragile thing but she does lament too much over Susan’s “fall” even before she knows what has happened. Almost driven to distraction by the shocking thought that her daughter has deliberately run away with a man, her fears for Arthur’s reputation with his flock almost outweigh her fears for Susan’s welfare. My favourite character was Mr Tozer, who champions Arthur’s cause even when he ignores his very good advice & causes offence wherever he goes. Tozer is proud of the success of Arthur’s preaching & not averse to scoring over his fellow deacon, Mr Pigeon, but he does stick by Arthur even when he goes off on wild goose chases on a Sunday & neglects the social side of his job. There’s also plenty of humour & satire in the portrayal of the families of the Chapel which was just wonderful. I can’t help thinking that it would have been a more successful novel if the sensation subplots had been left out.

The sensation plot winds up very quietly after the amount of lamentation about Susan’s reputation, whereabouts & lingering fate that has gone on. Arthur realises that he has to make some fundamental changes to his own life before he can be truly happy &, even then, he manages to go against the advice of everyone who cares for him, contrary to the last.

Anglophilebooks.comThere is a copy of the Virago edition of Salem Chapel available at Anglophile Books.

Sentimental Education – Gustave Flaubert

For certain men the stronger their desire, the less likely they are to act. Lack of self-confidence holds them back, they are terrified of giving offence. Moreover, deep affections are like respectable women; they are afraid of being found out and go through life with their eyes cast down.

Frédéric Moreau is a romantic young ditherer. Sent by his mother to stay with a rich uncle, with a view to being mentioned in his will, he is returning home with no definite plans & no promise of an inheritance. On the journey home, Frédéric falls in love at first sight with Madame Arnoux, wife of an art dealer. All he can think about is getting to Paris to pursue her. He goes to Paris to study law, visiting Arnoux in his shop but unable to either declare himself to Madame or to stop visiting. His schoolfriend, Deslauriers, comes to Paris & they share rooms, mostly at Frédéric’s expense. Through Deslauriers, Frédéric meets a group of radical writers & artists. His studies suffer & he still hasn’t made an impression on Madame Arnoux.

Frédéric returns home discouraged & already half-forgetting Madame but then receives a letter informing him that his uncle has died intestate & he has inherited a substantial fortune. Immediately, all his plans for a sober provincial future are overturned. He’s desperate to return to Paris. His mother thinks that a political or diplomatic career will now be open to him & urges him to make the acquaintance of the local landowner, Monsieur Dambreuse. Frédéric’s return to Paris leads to a whirl of partying & he meets a courtesan, Rosanette, known as the Maréchale, who is Jacques Arnoux’s mistress. Maréchale is attracted to Rosanette but still yearning for Madame Arnoux.

The company of these two women made a sort of twofold music in his life: one was playful, violent, entertaining; the other serious and almost religious. And the two melodies playing at the same time steadily swelled and became gradually intertwined. For if Madame Arnoux brushed him with her finger, the image of the other woman appeared before him as an object of desire, because he had more of a chance with her. And when in Rosanette’s company his emotions happened to be stirred, he immediately remembered his one true love.

His friendship with the Arnouxs leads him into financial commitments & Deslauriers is also pressuring him to invest in a radical newspaper. Frédéric becomes almost a companion to the Maréchale, taking her to the races, paying for her portrait to be painted but he is not her lover, he’s too timid to demand more than a few kisses. The Maréchale is offended by his apparent lack of interest but she’s juggling several lovers so just accepts his companionship & his presents.

Frédéric is invited to the Dambreuse’s home & he is impressed by the splendour of their lifestyle but he fails to take up any of Dambreuse’s suggestions or invitations to invest with him & so again, he drifts along. When he does make money on an investment, he waits too long to sell his shares & loses again. His income diminishes & he continues to sell property while he loans money to Arnoux, who has sold his art dealership & is now running a porcelain factory. Frédéric’s options are to find work, to spend less, or to make a rich marriage.

Frédéric’s mother wants him to marry Louise Roque, the daughter of Monsieur Dambreuse’s agent. Louise has been infatuated with Frédéric since she was a child & she is now a woman & an heiress. Again, he dissembles & can’t commit himself to Louise while he’s still in love with Madame Arnoux & lusting after the Maréchale, whom he finally makes his mistress. Marie Arnoux has discovered her husband’s infidelities & she realises that she has fallen in love with Frédéric & then Madame Dambreuse, a haughty but attractive woman, begins to take an interest in him as well. Frédéric sees her as a challenge & the fact that she’s wealthy is an added incentive.

He read her pages of poetry, putting all his soul into it, to move her and to win her admiration. She would stop him with a critical remark or a practical observation; and their conversation reverted constantly to the eternal question of Love. They wondered what occasioned it, whether women felt it more than men, what were the differences between them on that subject. Frédéric tried to express his opinion, avoiding both vulgarity and banality. It became a kind of battle, pleasant at times and tedious at others.

Frédéric’s sentimental education begins conventionally enough – a young man falling in love with the first attractive older woman he meets – but it takes many twists & turns & although he’s meant to be receiving an education in love & life, Frédéric seems to learn very little through the course of the novel. Will he be able to take the happiness that he’s wanted for so long? Or will his constant indecision be his downfall? Maybe Frédéric’s experiences are more realistic than those of many characters in fiction who seem to have a plan for their lives. All Frédéric’s plans go awry which may be more true to life where plans often fall apart & leave a mess that has to be lived with.

Sentimental Education is a funny, cynical portrait of French society in the years leading up to the 1848 Revolution. Frédéric’s inability to make a decision about anything & his misunderstandings with everyone he meets are amusing but also frustrating. His idealism leads him into one mess after another as his motives are misrepresented time & again. Madame Arnoux sees him as a kind young man; Arnoux as his friend who is helping to keep the knowledge of his affairs from his wife; the Maréchale sees him as a ready source of fun; Louise sees him as a chivalrous hero of romance; his mother sees him as a future Cabinet Minister. He lurches from one disaster to another either financial or romantic. He fights a ridiculous duel over an insult to Madame Arnoux but the Maréchale thinks he’s saving her reputation while Arnoux thinks it’s in his defence.

There are some great set scenes – the day at the races, the dinner party at the Dambreuses, the duel, the party where Frédéric first meets the Maréchale – that contrast with the poverty of students like Deslauriers & the journalists & artists in his circle. Then there’s the radical element, men like the engineer Sénécal who is arrested for conspiring to assassinate King Louis-Phillippe. As the 1848 Revolution unfolds, Frédéric becomes even more of a bystander to events as he & the Maréchale escape Paris for a country idyll that can’t last. His desire for approval from his friends paralyses him & whatever moral strength he may once have had just slips away as he juggles mistresses, potential wives & possible careers. In one farcical scene, he only just prevents Madame Arnoux & the Maréchale from meeting in his rooms & his selfishness is exposed in his relations with both Louise Roque & Madame Dambreuse as well as his remoteness from the political concerns of his friends. It’s a fascinating novel & it’s good to be able to read more Flaubert who is mostly remembered now for just one book, Madame Bovary.

Oxford University Press kindly sent me a review copy of Sentimental Education in a new translation by Helen Constantine.

Doctor Thorne – Anthony Trollope

Doctor Thorne opens with the events of twenty years before. Henry Thorne seduces Mary Scatcherd, sister of the local stonemason. When she becomes pregnant, her brother, Roger, beats Thorne so badly that he dies. Tried for murder, he is convicted of manslaughter when the facts of the case became known, & serves six months in jail. Henry Thorne’s brother, Thomas, is the local doctor, a steady, sober man in comparison with his wicked brother. Dr Thorne pities poor Mary Scatcherd in her sad situation. When Mary’s former suitor still wants to marry her & emigrate to America, he does so on the condition that she leaves her daughter behind. Dr Thorne pledges to bring up baby Mary & care for her & Mary Scatcherd agrees.

Twenty years later, Mary Thorne has grown up beautiful, kind & the apple of her uncle’s eye. She was sent off as a little girl to be educated but has lived with her uncle since she was 13. She is on terms of friendship with the local squire’s family, the Greshams of Greshamsbury. Doctor Thorne is a friend of the Squire & is tolerated by his haughty wife, Lady Arabella, who never forgets that she is a member of the De Courcy family of Courcy Castle. Squire Gresham has squandered the fortune left him by his father. His daughters will have tiny dowries & his only son, Frank, will have to marry well to hold on to what’s left of the estate. Marrying well means marrying money & Lady Arabella is soon scheming with her sister-in-law, Lady de Courcy, to bring this about. Lady de Courcy has invited Miss Dunstable, heiress of an ointment fortune, to Courcy Castle, & wants Frank to marry her.

Frank Gresham is a nice boy, that’s the only way I can describe him. Fond of his family, conscious of his father’s perilous financial position, loyal to his friends & eager to do the right thing. Frank is also in love with Mary Thorne. Lady Arabella has always disapproved of Mary’s intimacy with her children, not only because she has no money. Her ambiguous social position is also a problem. The sad story of her parents has been forgotten by many & the young Greshams & Mary herself have no idea that she’s illegitimate. However, once Mary is of an age to marry, she begins to ask her uncle questions about her origins.

Roger Scatcherd, the stonemason, has prospered. He is now a rich man, a baronet, living at Boxall Hill, land that once belonged to Squire Gresham, but was sold to pay debts. Scatcherd has been a friend of Doctor Thorne’s ever since the terrible events of twenty years before. Doctor Thorne helped Scatcherd’s wife & child while he was in jail but the Scatcherds know nothing about Mary. Sir Roger’s health is poor because he’s an alcoholic. His drinking bouts & irrational rages are undermining his constitution & he refuses to listen to Doctor Thorne’s advice. Doctor Thorne has never told Sir Roger about Mary because he fears that the Scatcherds would want to take her away from him. He knows how unhappy Mary would be with Sir Roger & his wife & so he says nothing. However, when Sir Roger, after another bout of illness, makes a new will, leaving a fortune to his sister Mary’s eldest child, but without naming the child, Doctor Thorne, as executor of the will, must tell Sir Roger the truth. The will leaves this eldest child the money if he or she outlives Sir Roger & his dissolute only child, Louis Philippe, who will inherit when he turns twenty-five.

Doctor Thorne is faced with a terrible dilemma. He knows that Mary & Frank are in love. He believes it is probable that Sir Roger will soon be dead as he refuses to stop drinking. Louis Philippe is well on the way to emulating his father & could very well die young, leaving Mary a considerable heiress. Sir Roger refuses to amend the ambiguous wording of the will. Should Doctor Thorne tell the Greshams of Mary’s possible inheritance in the hope that they will allow Frank to marry her? What if Louis Philippe reforms & lives to a ripe old age? Frank & Mary would be left with nothing.

I loved this book. This was actually a reread as I read the Barsetshire novels over 30 years ago. I was prompted to reread it because OUP kindly sent me a review copy of the new edition. We haven’t seen the new TV series here yet but I’ll be interested to see it when it makes an appearance. After 30 years, it was like reading a brand new novel anyway. I was especially taken with the good humour of the narrator. I thought of him as Trollope just as I think of the narrator of A Christmas Carol as Dickens & I kept thinking of Trollope standing in the spirit at my elbow (as Dickens writes when the Ghost of Christmas Past visits Scrooge). Doctor Thorne is also a very funny book. Whether it’s the satire of Lady Arabella & Lady de Courcy’s attempts to find a rich bride for Frank & his attempts to evade them or Augusta Gresham’s miserable engagement to Mr Moffat which ends with Frank horsewhipping him, much to the Squire’s approval, the tone is amused & genial.

Trollope’s descriptions are also pithy & very amusing. He describes Mr Winterbones, Sir Roger’s confidential secretary as “a little, withered, dissipated, broken-down man, whom gin and poverty had nearly burnt to a cinder, and dried to an ash.” He still tries too hard with some of his character’s  names, Dr Fillgrave, Miss Gushing, the easily bribed publican Mr Reddypalm & the political agents Mr Nearthewinde & Mr Closerstil. Doctor Thorne himself can be as prickly as his name when he feels he’s being slighted & Mary had spirit & wit, she’s no simpering young miss. I especially enjoyed her encounter with Lady Arabella where her pertness is on a par with Elizabeth Bennet’s when she is confronted by Lady Catherine.There’s also a very funny & satirical chapter consisting of letters between Augusta Gresham & her cousin, Lady Amelia. I don’t think I remember another Trollope novel where the narrator is so very present with comments & asides.

There are some implausibilities in the plot. I can only think that Sir Roger’s brain had been scrambled by drink for Mary’s identity to be such a surprise to him. Doctor Thorne had only one sibling, Henry, & Scatcherd knew his sister was pregnant when Henry died. Even though he was told the child was dead, where did he think the doctor’s niece had sprung from? Also, I would think that Mary’s illegitimacy might invalidate the terms of Sir Roger’s will without all the agonising that the Doctor goes through about what to tell the Greshams. Actually Trollope amusingly heads off any legal quibbling by boldly stating that if the terms of the will are incorrect, they’ve just been wrongly described! The critics had been scathing about the legal detail of his previous novel, The Three Clerks, so he was getting in first in Doctor Thorne. Still, surely Mary Scatcherd’s legitimate American children would have challenged the will? Anyway, it’s Trollope’s story & he tells us in so many words that it’s his world & he’ll do what he pleases with his characters.

I couldn’t help wondering what Wilkie Collins would have done with the same material. Trollope lays everything out for us so that by about Chapter 10 we know all about Mary’s parentage, the terms of Sir Roger’s will & the potential implications for Mary & her marriage to Frank. We then have another 35 chapters where Doctor Thorne works through every possible moral implication of these circumstances. His scruples won’t allow him to neglect Louis when he’s made an unwilling trustee of the estate, or raise Mary’s hopes by telling her of her possible inheritance.Wilkie would have made a mystery of every part of it with cliffhangers galore & I would have been on the edge of my seat. However, I was surprised how suspenseful the book was, considering that I already knew all the secrets & had a good idea of the ending. I read it over Easter & was glued to my chair for hours at a time.

Jezebel’s Daughter – Wilkie Collins

It’s been much too long since I read a Wilkie Collins novel so I was very pleased to see that Oxford University Press were publishing a new edition of one of his lesser-known novels, Jezebel’s Daughter. This is a late novel, published in 1880 & a short novel by Victorian standards, only 250pp. However, it is full of all the themes & preoccupations of Collins’ other novels – the position of women in society, the growing influence of science for good & evil, social justice & a good proportion of superstition, sensation & intrigue, including a pivotal scene in a morgue.

David Glenney is looking back on the events of his youth from a distance of 50 years. In the 1820s, he was working in his uncle, Mr Wagner’s, business which has offices in London & Frankfort. Mr Wagner, a good businessman with a social conscience, dies, leaving his very capable widow to continue the business & to carry out his particular plan, the reform of the treatment of the insane in asylums such as Bedlam. To this end, & against the advice of lawyers, Mrs Wagner decides to take one of the inmates of Bedlam, known as Jack Straw, into her home. Jack Straw got his name because of his ability to plait straw which calms his nerves. Although the origin of his illness is unknown, some form of poisoning is suspected. He is soon devoted to Mrs Wagner & she treats him with kindness, giving him responsibilities in the business such as becoming Keeper of the Keys, a title he’s very proud of.

The Frankfort office is run by the other two partners in the business, Mr Keller & Mr Engelman. Mr Keller’s son, Fritz, is sent to the London office to get him out of the way of a young woman he wishes to marry. Minna Fontaine is the Jezebel’s daughter of the title. Madame Fontaine is the widow of an eminent chemist. She has the reputation of a spendthrift & her extravagant debts are said to have ruined her husband’s health. After his death, a medicine cabinet, said to contain dangerous potions, goes missing & investigations lead nowhere although suspicion points to Madame as the thief. Mr Keller is determined that Fritz & Minna will not marry & refuses to meet either lady. Madame Fontaine is just as determined that they will marry & her maternal devotion & her desire for Minna to marry a rich man who will pay her debts for fear of scandal, is the catalyst for the events of the novel.

David goes to Frankfort to implement another of Mr Wagner’s innovations. He wants to introduce female clerks into both the London & Frankfort offices. His conservative German partners are sceptical but treat David cordially & he does all he can to keep the young lovers in contact with each other. David is suspicious of Madame Fontaine whose outward appearance of kindness & solicitude is betrayed by an underlying tension & frustration which David glimpses several times. Eventually, Madame contrives to meet Mr Engelman, whom she fascinates & flatters until he’s hopelessly in love with her. This provides her entrée in the Keller household. She even becomes housekeeper to Mr Keller, after she nurses him through a serious illness. Mr Keller eventually agrees to Fritz & Minna’s wedding & it seems that Madame Fontaine’s problems are over.

Mrs Wagner decides to visit Frankfort, bringing Jack Straw with her. The two widows dislike each other on sight & Jack is also known to Madame Fontaine as he was once an assistant in her husband’s laboratory. Jack has knowledge of Madame’s past & she fears that this knowledge will ruin all her plans. The contents of Monsieur Fontaine’s medicine cabinet give her great power & she is not afraid to use it, to devastating effect.

Jezebel’s Daughter began life as a play, The Red Vial, which Collins wrote in 1858. The play was a flop; reviewers acknowledged the sensational elements but felt that the play needed some comic sub-plot to avoid the audience sinking into despair & even some inappropriate laughter at the end of two hours of melodrama. Twenty years later, Collins reused the story in this novel. Collins excels at depicting strong women & Mrs Wagner & Madame Fontaine are wonderfully complex characters. The story doesn’t have many elements of mystery to it as we’re never really in doubt as to Madame’s duplicity. The first half of the story is told by David as an eyewitness & he is suspicious of her from the first. The second half, after an interlude consisting of three letters, is narrated by David from the testimony of others along with letters addressed to him (he’s in London through most of this part of the story) & a diary.

There may not be much mystery but there’s a lot of sensation in the plot. From the visit to Bedlam when Mrs Wagner meets Jack Straw, to the mysterious disappearance of Monsieur Fontaine’s medicine cabinet, illnesses & miraculous recoveries & the final scenes in the Deadhouse where superstitious Germans paid a Watchman to stay with their dead loved ones before their funerals in case they revived, there are enough shocks to satisfy any fan of sensation fiction. Minna is a bland heroine, sweet, dutiful & rather dim & her Fritz is boisterous & conventional. The real interest is in Madame Fontaine’s almost obsessive love for her daughter & the mixed motivations inherent in her desire for Minna’s marriage. She certainly wants her daughter to be happy & to marry the man she loves but she needs Minna to marry a rich man who will pay a promissory note that’s about to fall due. Madame Fontaine will do anything to bring about the marriage & it’s frightening to see the lengths that she will go to when it seems her plans are about to come unstuck.

Jezebel’s Daughter isn’t one of Collins’s best novels, coming near the end of his career & twenty years after the high points of The Moonstone, The Woman in White & Armadale. However, there’s a lot to enjoy in the portraits of the two widows, kindly Mr Engelman & rigidly correct Mr Keller & Jack, who often plays the role of fool or jester, presuming to speak the truth to his social superiors whether they want to hear it or not.

Oxford University Press kindly sent me a copy of Jezebel’s Daughter for review.

Evan Harrington – George Meredith

The great Mel – Melchisedec Harrington – is a tailor with delusions of grandeur. He was once mistaken for a Marquis &, ever since, enjoys pretending to be an upper-class member of the Harrington family when, in reality, he was a tailor in the town of Lymport-on-the-Sea. He ran up debts that he had no hope of paying & created embarrassments which his sensible, respectable wife, Henrietta Maria, had to deal with. Mel’s daughters had all married well but none of them had told their suitors that their father was a tailor. Harriet married rich brewer Andrew Cogglesby; Caroline married Major Strike & Louisa married a Portuguese Count & became Countess de Saldar. Only Andrew Cogglesby discovered the truth of his wife’s family & he was a good-natured man who couldn’t have cared less. The only son of the family, Evan, has not been brought up to be a tailor. He’s in that halfway state of being educated above his station but with no money to keep up any position at all. His father wanted him to go into the Navy, then the Army & in the end he went out to his sister, Louisa, in Portugal, where he has met the wealthy Jocelyn family of Beckley Court & fallen in love with Rose Jocelyn.

When the story begins, the Great Mel has died. His widow expects that Evan will come home, take up tailoring & pay his father’s debts. Evan arrives for the funeral alone (none of his sisters are willing to be seen in Lymport) & tries to comfort his mother. When Evan hears the situation, he agrees at once that he must pay his father’s debts but he’s in a dilemma. He’s in love with Rose, a young lady who has been heard to be scornful of tradesmen. Louisa, Countess of Saldar, is a schemer who is determined to see Evan marry either Rose or her cousin, Juliana Bonner, an invalid who is the heiress to Beckley Court, the home of the Jocelyns but the property of Rose’s grandmother, Mrs Bonner. She wangles an invitation to Beckley Court for herself, Evan & Caroline (who is unhappy with her abusive husband & is being pursued by the Duke of Belfield) & is disconcerted to find Andrew Cogglesby is also a guest. This is where the intrigue & machinations really begin.

Louisa is a beautiful woman who always has admirers hanging around her, including Rose’s brother, Harry, & several other members of the house party. Louisa is terrified that someone will discover the tailoring connection. Evan has promised to be apprenticed to a friend of his father’s but is reluctant to begin. He loves Rose but is conscious of his poverty & his connections. Rose realises that she loves Evan despite his background & announces her engagement to him. Ferdinand Laxley is another of Rose’s suitors & hearing rumours of Evan’s family, is determined to make mischief. The chief schemer though is Louisa. She imposes herself on the party, bewitching the men & irritating the women. When she writes a letter imitating Laxley’s handwriting to an absent husband alerting him to the affair of his wife with another guest, Lady Jocelyn dismisses Laxley from the house. When Evan discovers what Louisa has done, he confesses to writing the letter & his engagement with Rose is broken. The scene is set for tragedy mixed with quite a bit of farce.

Evan Harrington (cover from here) is a very strange book. If I hadn’t been reading it with my 19th century bookgroup, I don’t think I’d have read past the first few chapters. The tone is a mixture of social comedy, romance & farce & the prose is over the top & very convoluted. A whole lots of characters are introduced in the early chapters, tradesmen & creditors discussing the Great Mel, but then most of them disappear from the story & we’re left confused. But suddenly, about halfway through, I suddenly found I couldn’t put the book down & read the last half in just a few days. I was so irritated by the pretentious Countess at first but soon I just wanted to find out what outrageous scheme she would come up with next. Evan is a pretty colourless hero, honourable but silly. He is given money by a benefactor &, instead of paying off the debts or using it in some other useful way, he loans money to Harry Jocelyn (who has gotten a young working class woman pregnant) who is such a fool thatr he decides, on this evidence alone, that Evan must really be a gentleman after all. Anyway, now that he’s in the fellow’s debt, he can’t expose him as a tradesman as it would be bad form.

The women are more interesting than the men in this book. Mrs Mel, Evan’s mother, is a humourless but very proper woman who does the right thing no matter the consequences. I loved the scene when she’s at an inn & Old Tom Cogglesby (Andrew’s brother) arrives demanding his trunk taken up to his room, his chops perfectly cooked & his bed remade because it’s lumpy. The landlady’s in a complete flap but Mrs Mel manages Old Tom as though he were a recalcitrant child. It turns out they’re both on their way to Beckley Court & he offers her a lift in his donkey-cart. Rose begins as a rather affected, spoilt girl who is attracted to Evan but snobbish about class. She realises that love is more important when he confesses his background & she is very strong-minded when it comes to family opposition to her plan to marry Evan. Juliana is not a stereotypical Victorian invalid, she’s bad-tempered & resentful, prone to fits of weeping & sulking. She knows she’s plain & has nothing to recommend her but her position as heiress. She knows that Evan loves Rose but she finds it very difficult to be gracious about it.

Evan Harrington was one of Meredith’s first novels & he used his family background as the basis for the Harrington’s tailoring business. Apparently his father (who was a naval outfitter) was horrified by the novel & embarrassed that his son had used his life in his fiction. I think the varying tone of the novel – from serious romance to farce – comes from inexperience. Some of the characters are just eccentric for the sake of it, Evan’s friend John Raikes for instance, &, like many three volume novels, it’s too long. However, there are scenes like the picnic & the races, which are so beautifully done. It’s a real mixture of styles & tone but when it works, it’s immensely readable.

George Meredith was such a well-known figure in his time but is hardly read at all now. Only The Egoist seems to be in print although his work is available as eBooks. His best-known novel is Diana of the Crossways, which was reprinted by Virago & has been sitting on my tbr shelves for a very long time. Diana was based on Caroline Norton & I was so impressed by his female characters in Evan Harrington that I really must read Diana soon. Meredith was well-connected in literary circles (he was a reader for publishers Chapman & Hall) & knew Hardy, Tennyson, & Rossetti. He advised Hardy not to publish his first novel because the satire was too savage & Meredith’s career had suffered from adverse criticism of his early novels & their “low moral tone”. As I’ve been reading Max Beerbohm’s essays recently, I loved this caricature by Beerbohm of Meredith trying to get Rossetti to go for a country walk. Janey Burden languishes in the background. Meredith was known for his love of nature & he was a respected & revered figure in London literary society. Although his health declined in his old age, he continued to be visited by friends at his home at Box Hill until the end of his life.

The Rise of Silas Lapham – William Dean Howells

Silas Lapham is a self-made man. He grew up on a poor New England farm, went off to fight in the Civil War & came back to marry the local schoolteacher & make a successful business out of the mineral paint-mine his father had discovered on his land. Now, in middle-age, Colonel Lapham is a rich man, successful enough to be included in a series of newspaper interviews of the Great Men of Boston. He & his wife, Persis, have two daughters, Penelope & Irene; he employs a lot of people at his paint works & his Boston office & he has plans to build a grand new house on the Back Bay, the most select neighbourhood in Boston.

On their summer holiday, Persis & her daughters make the acquaintance of Anna Corey & her daughters. The Coreys are old Boston, a family that has an established position in society. Anna’s husband, Bromfield, is a dilettante. His father made money & Bromfield has been content to spend it. His son, Tom, is more like his grandfather. He hasn’t decided what to do with his life yet. Tom met the Lapham ladies on a visit to his mother & sisters & is smitten with one of the girls. He’s interested in the Laphams & asks the Colonel to take him into the business. Anna returns from her holiday to find Tom working for the Colonel & on visiting terms with the Laphams. She’s dismayed by Tom’s obvious interest in a family that may have money but isn’t quite out of the top drawer. The Laphams realise that their daughters haven’t had the right education, haven’t made the right connections to take their place in Boston society. This becomes more obvious as they ponder Tom’s interest in the girls compared to the standoffish behaviour of the rest of the Coreys.

Tom enjoys his work with the Colonel & has plans to help expand the business. He likes the Colonel, enjoys his obvious pride in his achievements & admires his success. He can’t help contrasting his own father’s lazy assumption of superiority with the Colonel’s energy. Tom is part of a new generation that takes people as they find them & has little time for the worries of his mother about his friendship with the Laphams & her fears that he wants to marry one of the daughters.

The Colonel & his wife have a comfortable relationship. Persis was a teacher before they married & she had a slightly higher social position in their hometown. She has always supported the Colonel but also acts as his conscience in his business dealings, whether he wants her to or not. Early in his career, the Colonel took a partner, Rogers, into the business. He soon found he didn’t like having a partner & bought Rogers out, just before the business took off. Nothing Rogers has done since has been successful & Persis has always been troubled by this, feeling that the Colonel did the wrong thing by maneuvering Rogers out of the business. Rogers turns up like a bad penny & plays on the Colonel’s uneasy feelings over their past dealings which leads to the beginnings of trouble for the Colonel & his fortunes.

The Rise of Silas Lapham is an absorbing study of character & of a society that is forced to change with the times. I loved the Colonel & Persis. Their marriage is strong although Persis has less involvement in the business than she did in the early days when they were building it up together & the Colonel has started to keep secrets from her which will cause misunderstandings. She worries over the girls & how to launch them in society (although the girls don’t seem very concerned). The Colonel thinks that money can solve any problem. He loves spending it on fast horses & his plans for a house become more grandiose & less tasteful every time he comes up with a new idea. Even his choice of a building site shows that he’s not part of the best society. He chooses to build on the “lesser” side of Back Bay. Persis spends a lot of time trying to rein the Colonel in & uncomfortably reminds him of his obligations to men like Rogers.

Penelope & Irene are embarrassed by their father’s boasting as he shows Tom around the new house but excited by the new friendship with Tom & impressed by his obvious interest in the family. The Coreys are forced into a social relationship with the Laphams through Tom’s involvement which leads to a disastrous dinner party & looks as though it will be a permanent relationship if he goes ahead with  a marriage proposal. I was reminded of the novels of Edith Wharton in the way that Howells explores the subtle gradations of social acceptability but Howells is also very good on the reality of family life & its comedy & tragedy. The Rise of Silas Lapham is a great read & I’m definitely looking forward to reading more William Dean Howells.

The Black Sheep – Honoré de Balzac

This is the story of two brothers, their foolish mother, who loves her worthless son & ignores his worthy brother, & about the intrigues that result when an inheritance is at stake.

Agathe Rouget was born in the provincial town Issoudun. Her father favoured her older brother, Jean-Jacques, unfairly believing that Agathe wasn’t really his daughter. Neglected & despised, Agathe soon leaves Issoudun, marrying a civil servant, Bridau, & moving to Paris. Two sons were born, Philippe & Joseph; Monsieur Bridau worked himself to death in the service of Napoleon, whom he worshipped, & his widow was let with very little money to live on. Agathe’s widowed aunt, Madame Descoings, combines her household with that of her niece & the two women live frugally, their only aim in life to help Agathe’s sons.

Although Madame Descoings spoils both the boys, Agathe’s favourite son is Philippe. Unfortunately he’s a lazy, scheming, dishonest boy who grows up to believe that the world owes him a living, mostly paid for by the sacrifices of his mother. He joins the army, spends whatever allowance his mother gives him, stealing the money if it’s not given to him, gambles, drinks, takes mistresses & generally lives the life of a spoiled brat. Cheated of advancement in the army by the downfall of Napoleon, Philippe refuses to serve the restored Bourbon monarchy & becomes involved in a fraudulent scheme to settle in America, losing all his money. All this time, he has ignored his mother, unless he needed money, while she has scrimped & saved, working in menial jobs & going without herself so that Philippe can have what he needs.

Joseph is an artist. He decides early in life where his talents lie & he works hard at his art, not too proud to take on hack work such as copying old masters as he learns & tries to make a living. He loves his mother & is always kind & considerate but Agathe is dismissive of Joseph & his kindness. She sees the life of an artist as vaguely disreputable & expects him to go without if Philippe needs money. Philippe steals from his brother as well although Joseph can’t afford to lose a sou.

Agathe has never returned to Issoudun & had no contact with her family but, some years after her father’s death, she hears from her godmother, Madame Hochon, that Jean-Jacques has fallen under the influence of a scheming woman, Flore Brazier & her lover, Max Gilet. Madame Hochon warns Agathe that if she wants her sons to inherit anything from her family, she needs to return to Issoudun & fight for her share.

After Agathe left Issoudun, her father, Dr Rouget came across a beautiful child, Flore Brazier, & took her into his home. His motives were far from pure & he groomed Flore, intending her to become his mistress. Fortunately he was too old to take advantage of her & Flore was left at his death with beauty & enough education to know where her own best interests lay. She had no trouble gaining a dominance over Jean-Jacques, who was a simple-minded, foolish man. Flore was soon installed as his housekeeper & did as she pleased. Jean-Jacques was happy enough to have Flore as his housekeeper & mistress but didn’t think it was proper to marry her. She fell in love with Max Gilet, an ex-army officer who was said to be an illegitimate son of  Dr Rouget. He was the leader of a gang of young men who called themselves the Knights of Idleness & spent their time playing cruel practical jokes on the townspeople. Flore & Max planned to get as much money out of Jean-Jacques as they can & then run away to get married. Madame Hochon’s letter to Agathe threatens to put a stop to their plans.

Agathe & Joseph go to Issoudun as Philippe is in prison, charged as a member of a group of Bonapartists conspiring to overthrow the King. They soon see the danger to any possible inheritance  but are powerless to influence Jean-Jacques or stop Flore & Max. The only weapons they have are goodness, honesty & family feeling. Only when they have retreated to Paris & Philippe arrives to take over the assault is there any chance that the Bridaus will prevail. Only a wicked man like Philippe can possibly counter the plans of two such conspirators.

Evil, in the form of Philippe & Max, seems to have everything its own way. The superficial attractions of good looks & a glib tongue help Philippe in his criminal career but Agathe is to blame as well for her for her blind partiality. Even as Philippe steals from her, Joseph & even from Madame Descoings, she finds excuses for his behaviour. The characters are so engaging. Madame Descoings, with her addiction to the lottery & her belief that her numbers, which haven’t come up in the last twenty years, will come up one day. Monsieur Hochon, a miser who unwillingly becomes involved with the Bridaus’ quest for justice. Fario, the Spanish merchant who is the victim of one of Max’s practical jokes & who takes his revenge. Flore, who rises from very humble beginnings to become the most powerful & feared woman in the town. She uses her looks & intelligence to create the kind of life she could never otherwise have dreamed of, exploiting the stupidity of Jean-Jacques to do so. Only when she falls in love does she begin to lose control.

The Black Sheep is a terrific read. The amused, cynical tone of the omniscient narrator sets the scene for a  family saga, a thriller & a wonderful portrait of provincial life in early 19th century France. The last third of the book reads like a thriller as the plotting & scheming comes to a climax & it’s hard to know who to barrack for when everyone is selfish, stupid or greedy & it seems that, again, the good will end badly & evil triumph. It’s also a testament to the skill of the writing that I was barracking for Philippe in his battle with Max & Flore, even though I knew what a disreputable, worthless character he was. I raced through the last chapters to find out how it would all end. The Black Sheep is part of Balzac’s monumental series of novels, The Comédie Humaine. I’ve read several of the novels, completely out of order, & I don’t think it matters. Characters recur in several of the novels but the books I’ve read so far stand alone.

Cousin Henry – Anthony Trollope

April marked the 200th anniversary of the birth of Anthony Trollope & there have been articles galore (just google Anthony Trollope 200 if you don’t believe me). I even found a checklist to count how many of Trollope’s novels I’ve read (22 out of 47 so not quite halfway). To celebrate the anniversary, I’m rereading Miss Mackenzie with my online reading group & I also took Cousin Henry off the tbr shelves.

Cousin Henry is one of Trollope’s standalone novels. It’s not part of the famous Palliser or Barsetshire series & it’s not a blockbuster like The Way We Live Now or He Knew He Was Right. It’s short by Trollopian standards (under 300pp), has no subplots & is an acute psychological study of guilt & indecision.

The plot is easily told. Mr Indefer Jones, owner of Llanfeare on the coast of Carmarthenshire, is an old man. He has no children & is undecided as to what he should do with his estate. He has made many wills as he dithers between leaving the property to Henry Jones, the next male heir, or to his niece, Isabel Brodrick. Henry Jones is a clerk in London, a very unprepossessing young man with no real vices but he just fails to please. On the other hand, Isabel is the darling of her uncle’s eye. She has lived at Llanfeare for some years, mostly to get away from her unsympathetic stepmother. She is loved & admired by all the tenants on the estate & she loves them & the estate in return. However, Uncle Indefer’s conscience inclines him to leaving the property to Henry & to leave £4000 to Isabel. Isabel is a noble, proud girl who would scorn to try to influence her uncle in any way. She leaves him to wrestle with his own conscience & never reproaches him. His lawyer, Mr Apjohn, has remonstrated with Uncle Indefer about disinheriting Isabel but to no avail. The only result has been a breach between lawyer & client which contributes to the misery that follows.

The final will seems to be the one leaving Llanfeare to Henry. He has been brought down to visit his uncle in the last months of his life & introduced to the servants & tenants, all of whom take an instant dislike to him. When Uncle Indefer dies, there’s talk of a later will, favouring Isabel, having been written & witnessed by two of the tenants. Isabel was with her uncle when he died & he told her that he had made such a will. Mr Apjohn knows nothing of it because Uncle Indefer refused to consult him about it. However, he had told Henry of the will & showed Henry where he had hidden it, in a volume of sermons in the library. After the funeral, the tenants tell their story of witnessing a new will but Henry stays silent. As no later will can be found, the will favouring Henry is read & must stand.

Isabel immediately makes plans to return to her father’s house in Hereford. Unfortunately the £4000 her uncle bequeathed her doesn’t exist because the old man sold the land that was meant to provide the cash. So, she returns home with nothing. Henry is persuaded by Mr Apjohn to offer Isabel the money as soon as he can get it but she scornfully refuses him. She suspects that Henry knows the whereabouts of the later will. She despises him & has no reservations about telling him so to his face. Isabel is in love with William Owen, but her uncle didn’t think a poor clergyman was good enough to marry his heir so Isabel has refused him. Now that she’s poor, she refuses to marry him because she’s too proud to go to him with nothing. Isabel’s father & stepmother don’t see why she shouldn’t accept Cousin Henry’s offer of the £4000 & marry Mr Owen but she refuses. She hates living with her family but her father won’t allow her to earn her own living.

Henry, meanwhile, is at Llanfeare. He is tortured by guilt & paralysed by indecision. He knows where the will is hidden, & he can’t bring himself to leave the library in case the will is discovered. He knows he should confess & produce the will but he can’t. He vacillates between planning to tell all & wallowing in self-pity about his treatment & his dislike for Isabel. He’s despised by the servants, who all give notice, & he’s too cowardly to go about the estate because he fears the wrath of the Cantors, the tenants who witnessed the will. So he skulks around the house, afraid to leave the library in case the will is discovered but wishing someone would find the will to extricate him from the torment he’s suffering.

Mr Apjohn suspects Henry of knowing about the will but can’t prove anything. Without the will, nothing can be done. Then, as rumours spread about the will & about the injustice suffered by Isabel, the local newspaper, the Carmarthenshire Herald, prints a series of articles questioning Henry’s honesty & his right to the estate. The editor hopes to provoke Henry into a libel action that would see him cross examined in court about the will & exactly what he knows about it. Could Henry commit perjury by lying in court or the even more serious crime of destroying the will? Mr Apjohn enlists Isabel’s father & the two men decide to confront Henry & try to prove Mr Apjohn’s theory about the will.

Cousin Henry is such an interesting character study. Henry is a coward, snivelling & self-justifying. He spends most of his time cowering from imaginary blows, vacillating between opposite courses of action, avoiding the servants & tenants & crying with self-pity over his situation. However, he’s not altogether an unsympathetic character. Uncle Indefer doesn’t help by openly disliking him & preferring Isabel. The tenants take their cue from him &, of course, Henry has never had an opportunity to get to know the estate. He’s bullied by everyone from Mr Apjohn to the Cantors, despised by Isabel, but he’s not evil. He could have destroyed the will & brazened it out but he doesn’t do that. He does have a conscience but his fear of the consequences of almost any course of action leave him doing precisely nothing.

Isabel is an even more interesting character. Proud & prickly with a streak of masochism (she plans to work as a housemaid or starve herself rather than accept Henry’s offer of money), Isabel prides herself on her moral rectitude. She refuses to blame Henry publicly, even though she is sure that he knows of the later will. She declares her love passionately to Mr Owen but then refuses to marry him. She drives her stepmother mad by standing on the moral high ground, refusing Henry’s money, refuses to marry Mr Owen while she can bring him nothing &, as Mrs Brodrick puts it, taking the boots from her own daughters’ feet as her husband has to provide for his ungrateful daughter. I sympathized with Henry & Isabel but was furious with Uncle Indefer for being such an old ditherer & creating such a mess. As Mr Apjohn says, the danger in owning property is in leaving heirs & tenants in ignorance of what is to come afterwards. I enjoyed Cousin Henry & I’m looking forward to reading more Trollope in this anniversary year.

Fortunata and Jacinta – Benito Pérez Galdós

Benito Pérez Galdós was the most famous Spanish author of the 19th century. He’s been compared to Dickens & Balzac in his depiction of Spanish society & the broad canvas of his novels. He wrote 46 novels in his great series, Episidios Nacionales, from 1873-1912. In Spain, his name needs no explanation but very few of his novels have been translated into English.

Fortunata and Jacinta is the story of two women who both love the same man. One is his wife, the other his mistress. Juanito Santa Cruz is the spoilt only son of a wealthy merchant. He’s never had to work in his life & shows no desire to try. Juanito spends his days & nights touring the poorer districts of Madrid with his friends. He meets Fortunata, a poor but beautiful young girl. They have an affair, she becomes pregnant & he leaves her. Juanito’s mother becomes concerned about his profligate lifestyle, although she doesn’t know about Fortunata. She engineers a marriage with Juanito’s cousin  Jacinta, a lovely but sheltered girl who soon falls passionately in love with her husband. After the honeymoon, they settle in to a comfortable life with the older Santa Cruzes. Juanito has confessed his affair with Fortunata to his wife & she forgives him. However, Jacinta is desperate to have a child. When she doesn’t fall pregnant, she becomes obsessed with Fortunata’s son & tracks the child down to a relative of Fortunata’s who is caring for the boy. However, this child is not Fortunata’s son, who died as a baby. The unscrupulous relatives try to convince Jacinta to adopt the boy & almost succeed.

Fortunata has taken up with a man who mistreats her & when she leaves him, she has several unsuccessful relationships until she meets Maximiliano Rubín, a young man studying to be a pharmacist. Maxi falls in love with Fortunata at first sight but he’s a poor specimen, thin, sickly & unprepossessing. He lives with his aunt, Doña Lupe, who disapproves of Fortunata’s lifestyle but eventually gives in to Maxi’s desire to marry her. Fortunata is still in love with Juanito but eventually agrees to marry Maxi for security. He persuades her to enter a convent that specialises in saving fallen women, where she will be able to cleanse her soul & prepare herself for marriage & life in a respectable family. While there, she meets an old friend, Mauricia, a seamstress who has delusions & visions caused by her drinking. Fortunata leaves the convent full of good intentions & marries Maxi.

Juanito, having lost sight of Fortunata for some years, sees her again & finds her more beautiful than ever. He pursues her, renting the apartment next door to the newly married couple & easily seduces her again. Maxi discovers the relationship & the torment he suffers begins to affect his mind. Juanito again leaves Fortunata & she is taken up by Don Evaristo Feijóo, an older man who becomes her protector & teaches her more cultured manners. Eventually he convinces her to return to Maxi as he worries about her fate after his death.

Almost immediately Fortunata realises that she has made a terrible mistake. She can’t bear Maxi or his aunt, who is suspicious of her. She begins seeing Juanito again & confronts Jacinta, telling her that she is Juanito’s true wife as she met him first & had a child by him. When Fortunata becomes pregnant, she can’t hide it from Maxi, who begins having homicidal fantasies & vows to take revenge on his faithless wife & her lover.

Fortunata and Jacinta is a panoramic story of life in 1870s Madrid. The story is so rich that merely describing the plot doesn’t begin to explain how absorbing it is. I know very little about Spanish history & the references to Spanish politics went over my head but it didn’t really matter. I read a little bit about the fraught political situation around the succession to the Spanish throne but not knowing much about it didn’t affect my enjoyment of the novel. The minor characters are just wonderful. Maxi’s aunt, Doña Lupe, is a canny moneylender & investor who had brought up Maxi & his two brothers, political opportunist Juan Pablo & Nicolas, a priest whose appetite is legendary but who never pays for the enormous meals he consumes. The pharmacist, Bellester, who falls in love with Fortunata & tries to protect her from Maxi’s odd behaviour. Mauricia, the alcoholic seamstress who shocks the nuns in the convent by her foul-mouthed tirades when she manages to get hold of drink. My favourite character was Guillermina Pacheco, an indefatigable worker for the poor who bullies all her acquaintances into supporting her charitable endeavours.

Juanito Santa Cruz was a completely worthless man with no redeeming features at all. I could only wonder why Fortunata loved him so much & why she kept going back to him after he treated her so badly. She seemed to think he was her fate & didn’t even try to resist him. Jacinta became completely consumed by her desire for a child, unable to enjoy her privileged lifestyle & becoming more & more fascinated by the idea of Fortunata & her hold over Juanito. I read Fortunata and Jacinta with my 19th century bookgroup & I loved coming back to the book every week for another installment. I hope more of Galdós’ novels are translated into English as I’d love to read more of his work.

John Caldigate – Anthony Trollope

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.