70-year-old Sir Harry Hotspur is a man with 20,000 pounds a year and considerable property in Cumberland and Durham. His wife, Lady Elizabeth, a gentle, kind woman, is 20 years younger. They had 2 children: a son and heir and a daughter, Emily. When the novel opens, Sir Harry’s son is dead, and this loss, a terrible blow for his parents, also presents a dilemma regarding inheritance. Sir Harry is proud of his name, his title and his property. He takes his role of landowner seriously and feels a responsibility to uphold the property and the family name. While he is free to leave the property to his daughter, the title must fall to the nearest male relative, and that happens to be George, the son of a cousin. The cousin, now deceased, had never been in Sir Harry’s good books, and there are tales about George’s bad behaviour. Sir Harry, ever driven by a sense of duty, invites George to Humblethwaite. Sir Harry has the hope that a marriage might be possible between Emily and George, and if that were to occur, then the property and title (in the family for centuries) would remain together.
George has a great deal of charm, and as we shall see his charms work better on the females of his acquaintance.
Poor Lady Elizabeth had not a chance with Cousin George. She succumbed to him at once, not knowing why, but feeling that she herself became bright, amusing, and happy when talking to him.
After George’s visit, Sir Harry draws up a new will leaving everything to his daughter with the stipulation that if she marries, her husband should take the name Hotspur. The one visit from George is enough to convince Sir Harry that his daughter should marry another. She is, after all, beautiful and a great heiress, so her ‘prospects’ are excellent. Sir Harry also gifts 5,000 pounds as a sort of consolation prize to George, who acknowledged some debts. Now that George is known to be a less-than-decent prospect, it’s arranged that another, much more suitable young man should visit Humblethwaite, but Emily shows no interest. In the spring, the Hotspurs travel to London for the season, and it’s there that Emily sees George again. …
This is a tragic tale. George is a complete bounder–a card sharp, a gambler, a forger, a man who lives on his mistress’s earnings. Over time, it becomes clear that George’s actions go beyond the scope of a young man who lives beyond his means; he is a criminal. Sir Harry discovers terrible things about George, but there’s a dilemma–Emily, only 20, is a delicately nurtured girl who now loves George. Should she be told the details of George’s sins?
For this reader, Emily was not a satisfactory heroine. There was a smell of burning martyr, and she constantly reverts to the idea that religion is all about forgiving people, and shouldn’t they, as a family, devote their lives to reforming George? If he’s a “black sheep” then surely, he can be “washed white.” Emily begs her father to reconsider his refusal to consent to her marriage to George. Sir Harry vacillates on the subject of George which only brings this rascal into Emily’s orbit again and again. Better a clean (early) break.
The book centres on moral dilemmas: Should Sir Harry allow his daughter to marry this man? Is it worse for Emily to marry George and no doubt be miserable or lose George and be bitterly unhappy? There are times when Sir Harry tells himself that George can’t be that bad, and that the marriage would, after all, allow the title to remain with the property.
In his courtship of Emily, George is aided and abetted by Lady Altringham, the wife of a friend. She has no skin in the game and is free to nurture his unscrupulous designs. While Lord Altringham (also a tad on the unscrupulous side) is happy to invite George to his parties, he would never consent to lending him money, but George knows how to play, and play to, the ladies, and so he moves in the best society:
In spite of all his faults, this man enjoyed a certain social popularity for which many a rich man would have given a third of his income. Dukes and duchesses were fond of him; amd certain persons standing very high in the world, did not think certain parties were perfect without him. He knew how to talk enough, and yet not talk too much. No one could say of him that he was witty, well-read, or given to much thinking; but he knew just what was wanted at this point of time or at that, and could give it. He could put himself forward, and he could keep himself in the background. He could shoot well without wanting to shoot best. He could fetch and carry, but still do it always with an air of manly independence. He could subserve without an air of cringing. And he looked like a gentleman.
George juggles his debts desperately while trying to nail down his engagement, and he is guided by Lady Altringham who understands Sir Harry’s primary concerns and motivations. When Sir Harry invites George to his home (repeatedly) I winced… after all Emily, up there in Cumberland, has only ever seen a few single men. George is dashing, and he knows how to please the ladies. Emily is sheltered and cannot possibly understand how moral depravity is a statement about character. The created situation with its subsequent moral dilemmas is gripping. Emily reminded me of Helen Graham from Anne Bronte’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. George certainly has no interest in changing his way of life even though he is all too happy to give lip service to the promises he has no intention of keeping. There’s a marvelous scene towards the end of the book in which Sir Harry sets up conditions, a type of probation for George:
‘Only pay my debts and set me up with ready money, and I’ll go along as slick as grease!’ Thus would Cousin George have answered the question had he spoken his mind freely. But he knew he must not be so explicit. He must promise much; but, of course, in making his promise he must arrange about his debts.
‘I’ll do almost anything you like. Only try me. Of course it would be so much easier if those debts were paid off. I’ll give up the races altogether, if you mean that, Sir Harry. Indeed, I’m ready to give up anything.’
‘Will you give up London?’
‘London!’ In simple truth, George did not quite understand the proposition.
‘Yes; will you leave London? Will you go and live at Scarrowby [Durham property], and learn to look after the farm and the place?’
George’s face fell,–his face being less used to lying than his tongue; but his tongue lied at once; ‘Oh yes, certainly if you wish it. I would rather like a life of that sort. For how long would it be?’
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