This is a story of social class and the consequences of your decisions set in Victorian England, in which a young man named Harry must become his own man and live by the choices he makes. This is another one of those endlessly interesting Victorian novels about - well about life, and the choices we make, and what we want versus what we get, and all those questions that occupy our thoughts to this day. I could read this book a dozen times and never get tired of it, and I think most people can relate to it.
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The protagonist of the story is young Harry Clavering, a member of the landed gentry if his surname didn't give that away. Harry is just coming of age and wants to fall in love and find out who he is, and what he should do that can define himself outside of his aristocratic family. You cannot help but like Henry and his naive sincerity.
Harry's father is the Reverend of the parish, the kind of clergyman who has enough money to live well and generally wishes everyone well, tries to do the decent thing, urges others to do the decent thing, and isn't intolerant, fundamentalist, or the type to take his faith too seriously, although he does have faith. The Reverend's older brother, Sir Hugh, is the local squire and master of Clavering Park, the majestic family estate, on which the parish also lies. Sir Hugh lives up in the big house, and his younger brother Archibald flits back and forth between Clavering Park and the club in London. Harry's little sister Fanny is a sprightly young woman and a talented pianist, who has given her affections to the stolid and serious parish curate, Samuel.
Harry's affections meanwhile are given to Margaret, Sir Hugh's sister-in-law, an attractive and flirtatious and ambitious young woman. Harry and Margaret are attracted to each other and have met at many balls in Clavering Park, although those occasions only happen when Margaret visits the Home Counties. Margaret has a reputation for being a bit of a flirt, and is occasionally eyed askance by other women. When Harry confesses his love to Margaret she hesitates, and then brushes him off. Margaret aspires to more than a parish in life, however, and gets herself married to an earl, becoming the Countess, Lady Ongar. She departs to begin married life, leaving Harry crushed and hopeless. Harry throws himself into his studies so that he can leave the parish and become an engineer in London, and life goes on at Clavering Park. Rumors filter back home that Lady Ongar has affairs, and that her marriage is a sham. As her reputation grows less respectable despite her wealth and social position, Harry lags behind in his engineering studies to the frustration of his father the Reverend, who wants his son to join the church. But Harry apprentices himself at an engineering firm in the nearby market town and almost two years later, as Christmas approaches, Harry falls in love with a young woman named Florence, recently returned from her ladies seminary in York. Florence's father, Mr. Burton, is a founding partner of the firm, and Florence has been raised and educated to be a lady. Harry admires her and Florence loves him, but she is calm and rational, and asks Harry to wait until next Christmas for them to get married, so that he can get some income under his belt first.
Clavering Park receives word a week later that Lord Ongar died of consumption in Paris, and that his wealthy widow, Lady Clavering's sister, is returning to England and wishes to stay at Clavering Park. Sir Hugh has always shied away at the idea of having another mouth to feed,, and uses Lady Ongar's "reputation" as a fliratious woman as an excuse. His wife asks Harry to let Lady Ongar stay at the parish and he reluctantly agrees, against the Reverend's wishes. Meanwhile, Fanny marries the curate Samuel, a match both the Reverend and Harry approve of.
Margaret is as charming as ever and despite his sincere wish to be with Florence, Harry and Margaret begin spending time together for the next couple weeks, riding, walking in the Park, and talking all the time. Harry cannot bring himself to tell her about his engagement to Florence, and he grows jealous when Archibald, down at Clavering Park on a visit from London, also begins insisting on Margaret's favors for walks and rides and dances, as do other landed gentlemen and aristocrats. They all want Margaret for her money, especially Archibald who stands to inherit nothing, while Harry just admires her looks and gaiety. One afternoon after she plays the piano for the two of them in the rectory, she begins to tell Harry that he was the first person to make her laugh and have fun since her husband's death and, moved, Harry embraces her and kisses her. She responds and he immediately regrets it, thinking of Florence, but chooses not to tell Margaret.
The choice is taken out of his hands, however, when one of her late husband's friends from Paris, Sophie, visits the town of Clavering to bring Margaret back to Paris. Sophie, eager to make sure Margaret does not stay in Clavering, finds out that Harry is engaged to Florence and tells Margaret at once - but not before maneuvering things at a Clavering garden party so that Florence stumbles across Harry and Margaret talking secretly in the garden. Shocked and heartbroken, Florence breaks their engagement and Harry finally feels enormous guilt and remorse. He realizes that Florence is the one who was steadfast and true, and that Margaret just wants attention and sympathy, after her cold and loveless marriage. He tells her that he cannot continue their flirtation, and then writes a letter of apology to Florence, begging her to reconsider. After a while, she quietly accepts him back, to Harry's joy.
Margaret refuses to return to France with Sophie, choosing to stay with her sister at the Park. Sir Hugh and Archibald decide to go sailing in the North Sea, but die when a storm kills them at sea. Harry's father, the Reverend, inherits the estate of Clavering Park, with Harry in line after him. The parish is given to Fanny and her husband, and the widowed, grief-struck Lady Clavering retires to the dower house on the estate, taking Margaret with her.
Best part of story, including ending:
I like how everyone's choices come back to haunt them, and they change themselves for the better and make more mature choices.
Best scene in story:
When Florence and Harry bond and share a laugh as they make fun of Archibald's fake intellectual pretensions together.
Opinion about the main character:
Harry is a little weak, but ultimately really honorable and I like that.