After reading all of the Palliser and Barchester books, I felt a little lost among the many other stand-alone books by Anthony Trollope that I have yet to read. There was more than one book that I put up and picked down, but when I picked up John Caldigate and started to read I realised that I had found the right book. There was exactly the right balance of things that I know that Trollope does well and things that I hadn’t encountered in his books before.
John Caldigate was the only son of a widowed father, Daniel Caldigate. He was a bright and sociable young man, and while he was at Cambridge he fell into debt. His father, a serious-minded man, who had worked hard to establish himself and only married when he was well enough established to support a family, was bitterly disappointed, but he made the necessary arrangements for his son to sell his future interest in the family estate in exchange for a mortgage on said estate, to clear his debts.
Appreciating what his father had done, wanting to repay him but not wanting to wait around for an estate that he might or might not inherit, he resolved to travel to New South Wales in the hope of making a fortune in the goldfields.
He also resolved that, if he succeeded, he would return and marry Harriet Bolton, the daughter of his father’s banker friend who had arranged the mortgage.
John Caldigate did come home, older, wiser and a great deal richer. His father was delighted to welcome the son he had thought he might never see again. The Boltons were less happy when he presented himself as a suitor, but Harriet was charmed and in time her father and her step-brothers were won over.
The couple were married, a son was born, and they could so easily have lived happily ever after; but a past indiscretion came back to haunt John Caldigate.
He and his friend, Dick Shand, had travelled to Australia third class, so that they could begin to adjust to a new life in which they would no longer be ‘gentlemen’. John met a young widow, Mrs Euphemia Smith, he was smitten with her and promised that he would find her as soon as he established himself. His attraction he her soon faded, but he remembered his promise and he travelled to find her. She was performing on the stage, as Madame Cettini.
That lady and two of his former business partners travelled to England, alleging that the mine he had sold them was worked out; that he had married Mrs. Smith in New South Wales; and that his marriage to Hester Bolton was bigamous.
John Caldigate denied the charge of bigamy, but he recognised that there was a moral, though not a legal claim for the return of part of the purchase price of the mine. He wanted to do ‘the right thing’ but he was strongly advised against ‘buying them off’.
He found himself on trial, and the case against him looked very bad.
There was much drama, inside and outside the courtroom.
The Bolton family turned against John Caldigate and, as Harriet stood firmly by her husband, they took extreme measures to bring her back to the family home and keep her there!
Dick Shand had failed as a miner and turned to drink. He came home knowing nothing about the bigamy case, he wanted to speak in his friend’s defence, but was told that his word was worthless in the light of his past!
Mr Bagwax of the Post Office travelled to Australia to test a key point of the prosecution’s case – an envelope with a stamp and a postmark – that he was sure was forged!
I have never found Trollope to be good at handling suspense, but he managed it quite well in this book. Though I had a fair idea how the story would play out I was by no means certain that it would, and I did question whether or not there had been a marriage in Australia.
There was – of necessity – a gap in the part of the story set in Australia; but what Trollope could tell of the story there I loved. I could have happily spent more time there and rather less on the voyage and the run-up to the trial. His pacing of this story didn’t quite work for me.
The central question of the story was intriguing: how should John Caldigate, who had made youthful mistakes, whose success came from good luck as much as hard work, be judged?
John Caldigate was a wonderfully nuanced character, he was a fundamentally decent man but he was horribly fallible; as was his father. I loved the way that they both changed and the way that their relationship evolved over the course of the story.
The women on this book were not so well done – I loved Harriet’s devotion to her husband, I loved that she loved her mother despite her trenchant opposition to her son-in law, but her character needed more and it simply wasn’t there.
So, my final verdict is a little mixed.
The story never failed to entertain, I loved the human drama – the gold mining scenes and the trial scenes were particularly good – but Trollope has written better books.