This is a highly entertaining story about the ambitions of Ralph, heir to an estate, and the ambitions of the people around him, and how their lives intersect as they compete for the best marriages, run for election and get charged with corruption, and reveal the greed and hypocrisy of the British upper class. Ralph the Heir is an occasionally amusing, sometimes depressing, always sharp novel about social class and corruption in Victorian England. The estate of Newton Priory is about to be passed on, according to the law that governs aristocratic estates, to the squire's nephew Ralph, instead of the squire's illegitimate son Ralph. They grew up together as boys, but they've always been very different people.
Click here to see the rest of this review
Ralph the Bastard is conscientious, dutiful, and good. Ralph the Heir is feckless, irresponsible, and spends money like Marie Antoinette. Ralph the Heir is fond of horse races, card games, ordering clothes from Savile Row every week and buying unnecessarily expensive horses. He soon ends up in debt, and with his creditors closing in, Ralph finds he has to either get the money from his future interest in the incomes that Newton Priory generates (because both Ralph and the squire are forbidden from selling any of the land) or marry Miss Neefit, the vulgar daughter of his merchant creditor, a manufacturer. Ralph reluctantly proposes to Miss Neefit in the hopes that she refuses, and she does, having no respect for a man who cannot manage his money.
Ralph's uncle, now seeing an opportunity to pass Newton Priory to Ralph the Bastard instead, offers to buy Ralph the Heir's reversion interest in the estate, taking his nephew out of the inheritance. Ralph the Heir accepts this, but before the documents are signed, the squire takes a bad fall from his horse during a hunt, and dies. Ralph inherits Newton Priory and all of its incomes, and is able to pay off his creditors in full.
Parliamentary elections are almost about to begin in the county. Standing for the Conservatives is Sir Thomas, a retired army officer with a large estate, a social peer of the Newtons of Newton Priory. His niece, Miss Bonner, is beautiful, well-bred and rich, and Ralph the Heir sees her as a perfect bride, and while Ralph the Bastard is paying her court as well, the new young squire is confident where her affections will lie.
Meanwhile, the Radical candidate for Parliament, representing the disenfranchised lower classes, is Ontario, a young man whose father is a tradesman and merchant/manufacturer like Miss Neefit's father. Miss Neefit insists on marrying Ontario, despite her father's ambitions for her to marry Ralph Newton the squire, and when her father continues to object, she threatens to bring scandal to her father's name by eloping with Ontario. This makes him finally agree to the match, and they are happily married.
Meanwhile, gentle, honorable Ralph the Bastard attentively courts Miss Bonner and amuses her with light jokes. She grows to admire his hard work as a lawyer, and his opposition to corruption in the elections. Traditionally, votes are often bought and sold, but both Sir Thomas and Ontario want to make it clean. Their efforts to clean up the election go nowhere, however, and Sir Thomas and Mr. Mortimer, the other Conservative, end up as winners, though how clean the victory is nobody knows. Miss Bonner, however, falls in love with Ralph the Bastard and marries him instead of the squire, and the borough is made extinct when the level of corruption in its elections comes to light.
Best part of story, including ending:
I had no idea that level of corruption existed in Victorian county elections, it reminds you of the modern day third world.
Best scene in story:
When Sir Thomas and Ontario are standing on opposite sides of the village green, loudly proclaiming their positions on issues and their slogans. Very funny to imagine.
Opinion about the main character:
Ralph the Heir is amusing, witty, and irresponsible, but you kind of have to like him despite his flaws.