This is the first novel that Rhoda Broughton wrote, though it was the second she published, after Not Wisely But Too Well, both in 1867. She had started it five years earlier, while living with her widower father and older sisters, a situation she shared with the heroine of this book, Nell Le Strange. Nell, who narrates her own story, is 19 when the book opens. Her father Sir Adrian Le Strange is the last heir of a family that traces its line back to the Conquest.
But, alack! in these latter days we had been but too well known at Epsom and Newmarket; we had been very much at home at Crockford's when Crockford's was; we had wasted our young affections and substance on operatic Phyrnes; we had run away with our neighbours' wives, and had generally misbehaved ourselves; and, in consequence, our many thousands had dwindled to very few hundreds, and our fair acres passed into the hands of Manchester gents with fat, smug faces . . .From the start, Nell's voice is frank, outspoken even, lively and entertaining. She is an unconventional young women, having grown up under her father's care, with no one to teach her the usual "womanly arts." As she says, "If I had had a mother, I should have had to mend my gloves, and keep my hair tidy, and practise on the piano, and be initiated into the mysteries of stitching." Instead she has rambled around the house and the estate, with her father. The close, loving relationship with her "dear old dad," as she calls him, is the center of her life. But he is elderly, in failing health, worn down with worry over his mortgaged estates, their old house falling into ruin, their old clothes wearing thin. Nell does all she can to shield him, but bills arrive by every post, and local tradesmen demand something on account.
There is a third member of this family, Nell's sister Dolly, four years older. When the story opens, she is away on a visit. Though neither Nell nor her father says it, both feel freer and more comfortable in her absence. Dolly is a beauty, and despite the family's poverty, she is always elegantly dressed. She has a small graceful figure, a classic profile, melting brown eyes, and luxuriant black hair. Nell tells us, "she looked as if her life must be one long prayer," but "if it was it was a prayer said backwards." Dolly has done all she could to keep Nell at home, out of sight and out of society. Nell doesn't suspect that Dolly may fear competition, since Dolly has convinced her that her red hair and strong features are unattractive, even ugly. I was fully convinced of Dolly's wickedness even before I learned that Nell "had no jewels, Dolly having appropriated all our mother's ornaments, before I was of an age to care much . . ."
But while Dolly is away, Nell is invited to her very first dinner party, at the home of the nouveau riche Coxe family (much as Emma Wodehouse is to the Coles). Despite her very shabby and outmoded dress, she makes quite an impression on the gentlemen present, who include Sir Hugh Lancaster, a rich baronet and great matrimonial prize. For Nell the real happiness of the evening is meeting again a gentleman - tall, blond and handsome - whom she encountered while out rambling late one evening. It is only at the dinner that she learns that he is Richard McGregor, a major in the Army. In the days that follow, Sir Hugh makes his intentions plain, but Nell has already fallen in love with her soldier, and he with her. Neither cares that he is as poor as the Le Stranges. Nell's father does, and so does her sister. When Dolly returns, she immediately sets out to break off Nell's romance and compel her to marry the wealthy Sir Hugh. The means that she uses take a terrible toll.
This book caused a sensation when it was published, mainly because Nell speaks frankly of her love for Dick. She sneaks out of the house late in the evening to meet him, to spend the time kissing and cuddling in secluded nooks, and she is quite open about how much she enjoys this. She is equally frank about how much she dislikes the idea of Sir Hugh kissing her, let alone marrying her. In fact, she tells him repeatedly that she doesn't like him, even that she hates him. I couldn't quite figure out why he keeps pursuing her, but I decided that he is the stolid type who never changes his mind once he has decided on something, and in his position he is used to getting his own way in the end.
This is not a happy story, with the family's poverty, Dolly's wicked ways, and Nell's difficult romance. Nell is a loquacious narrator, with frequent digressions to moralize and philosophize that weigh the story down. But she speaks very movingly about her father's failing health, and her inability to accept the loss that is coming. (Broughton lost her own father soon after this book was written, so this may be from her own experience.) At his death, what's left of the estate will fall to his creditors, and there is a very ugly strain of anti-semitism in the description of the Jewish agents handling that business. The ending is pure tragedy, for everyone except that wretched Dolly.**
It may not be a happy story, but it is certainly an interesting one. Rhoda Broughton had a gift for creating vivid characters and embroiling them in compelling stories. If you're interested in this story, I have an extra copy of the book that I'd be happy to share.
At the end, Nell is supposedly dying of consumption, but if so, it's that lovely picturesque version, with hectic color in the cheeks and a gradual fading away - not the actual horrible suffocation of coughing up blood and lungs collapsing.