Study Guide

A Nest of Simple Folk

by John Francis Whelan

A Nest of Simple Folk Summary

Summary (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Foxehall is a bleak, remote manor house, and the family that owns it keeps to themselves. Rachel and Anna Foxe are content to live prim maiden lives, poverty-stricken remnants of a landed family. Judith Foxe, however, marries Long John O’Donnell, a secretive farmer. Judith is cut off with a dowry of five fields as a punishment for marrying beneath her station; for seventeen years, she does not see her sisters. The marriage is a good one for Long John. Poor as he is, he feels that Judith’s five fields were good pay for taking an unattractive wife. When their tenth child, Leo, is born, Rachel condescends to sponsor him. Afterward, it seems to Judith that Leo is her only true son. When her husband is near death, she is determined that Leo should be the heir.

James, the oldest son, works like a servant for his harsh father. As the oldest, he will inherit the home farm. Phil is next in line; by rights, he should have had the five fields. Long John obstinately refuses to make a will; as he grows weaker, however, Judith harries him into telling a lawyer how the property should be distributed. She also dresses Leo in Phil’s clothes and tricks her weak, dying husband into pointing to Leo as the heir to the five fields. By this act, James inherits only the heavily mortgaged home farm and the obligation to find husbands for his numerous sisters. Leo is given the five free fields, with Phil receiving only what James will share with him.

After the funeral, James drives the family home. Young Leo senses James’s state of mind and offers to give him all the land, an offer which infuriates the older brother. James whips Leo savagely and drives him off the farm. Leo goes to live with his maiden aunts. Rachel and Anna do their best to make a genteel aristocrat of their rough and surly nephew. Nicholas, a ne’er-do-well, is his tutor, and Nicholas himself is rough. A long debate ensues over Leo’s future as a doctor or a gentleman farmer. Leo has little preference, but when he is sent to Limerick to study with Dicky, his doctor cousin, he goes willingly enough.

Nicholas is influential in molding the boy’s sympathies and accompanies him on the journey. Because the tutor had told him of the past insults and atrocities by the aristocracy, Leo becomes angry at the injustices suffered by the poor farmers. In Limerick, the two call on Frankie O’Donnell, Leo’s uncle, a tavernkeeper who is a revolutionary at heart. The rough welcome there is in sharp contrast with his treatment at Doctor Dicky’s house. The old doctor is a gruff Protestant and a teetotaler. Leo is out of place in his country clothes. After a trial term, Leo is sent home in disgrace; he has no aptitude for medicine.

For years, Leo lives an idle and dissolute life. After his aunts die, he becomes the owner of Foxehall. Taking no care of the property, he hunts, carouses, and chases girls. One of them, Philly Cashen, is turned...

(The entire section is 1195 words.)