Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1725
Gamaliel Pickle is the son of a prosperous London merchant who bequeaths his son a fortune of no small degree. Later, having lost a part of his inheritance in several unsuccessful ventures of his own, Gamaliel prudently decides to retire from business and to live on the interest of his fortune rather than risk his principal in the uncertainties of trade. With his sister Grizzle, who kept his house for him since his father’s death, he goes to live in a mansion in the country.
In the region to which he retires, Gamaliel’s nearest neighbor is Commodore Hawser Trunnion, an old sea dog who keeps his house like a seagoing ship and who possesses an endless list of quarterdeck oaths to be used on any occasion against anyone who offends him. Other members of his household are Lieutenant Hatchway, a one-legged veteran, and a seaman named Tom Pipes.
Shortly after he settles in his new home, Gamaliel meets Sally Appleby, the daughter of a gentleman in a nearby parish. After a brief courtship, the two are married. Before long, Gamaliel discovers that his wife is determined to dominate him completely. Sally takes such a dislike to Grizzle that she tries in every way possible to embarrass and humiliate her sister-in-law. During Sally’s pregnancy Peregrine, the oldest son of the ill-starred union, Grizzle realizes that she is no longer wanted in her brother’s household, and she begins a campaign to win the heart of old Commodore Trunnion.
Ignoring his distrust of women in general, she wins out at last over his obstinacy. The wedding is not without humor; on his way to the church, the Commodore’s horse runs away with him and carries him eleven miles with a hunting party. Upset by his experience, he insists that the postponed ceremony be performed in his own house. The wedding night is also not without excitement: The ship’s hammocks, in which the bride and groom are to sleep, collapse and drop them to the floor. The next morning, wholly indifferent to her husband’s displeasure, Grizzle proceeds to refurnish and reorganize the Commodore’s house according to her own notions.
In order to silence his protests, Grizzle pretends to be pregnant. The Commodore’s hopes for an heir, however, are short-lived; his wife employs her ruse only to make herself absolute mistress of the Trunnion household. Lacking an heir of his own, the gruff but kindly old seaman turns his attention to young Peregrine, his nephew and godson. Peregrine is an unfortunate child. While he is still very young, his mother takes an unnatural and profound dislike to him, and the boy is often wretched from the harsh treatment he receives. Under the influence of his wife, weak-willed Gamaliel does little to improve the unhappy situation. As a result, Peregrine grows into a headstrong, rebellious boy who shows his high spirits in pranks that mortify and irritate his parents. He is sent away to school, and he rebels against his foolish and hypocritical teachers; at last, he writes to the Commodore to request removal from the school. The Commodore feels pity for the boy and admires his spirit of independence, so he takes him out of school and adopts him as his son and heir.
When Peregrine’s pranks and escapades become more than his indulgent uncle can stand, the boy is sent to Winchester School. Pipes accompanies him as his servant. Mindful of his uncle’s kindness, Peregrine studies and makes steady progress until he meets Emilia Gauntlet and falls in love with her. Emilia is visiting in Winchester; her home is in a village about a day’s journey away. Peregrine’s infatuation is so great that soon after she returns home, he runs away from school and takes lodgings in the village in order to be near her. His absence is reported by the school authorities, and Hatchway is sent to look for him. The boy is summoned to visit his uncle, who is alarmed by his heir’s interest in a penniless young woman. Peregrine’s mother grows even more spiteful, and his father disowns him for his youthful folly. Indignant at the parents’ harsh treatment of their son, the Commodore sends Peregrine to Oxford to continue his studies. There he encounters Emilia again and renews his courtship. Hoping to make a good match for his nephew, the Commodore attempts to end the affair by sending Peregrine on a tour of the Continent. Aware of his uncle’s purpose in sending him abroad, Peregrine visits Emilia before his departure and vows eternal devotion.
Shortly thereafter, warned by the Commodore that his reckless behavior will lead only to disaster, Peregrine sets out for France. Peregrine is accompanied by Pipes, as his servant, and a mentor who is supposed to keep a check on Peregrine’s behavior. All efforts in that direction are fruitless. Peregrine barely sets foot on French soil before he makes gallant advances to Mrs. Hornbeck, the wife of a traveling Englishman. In Paris, he encounters the lady again and elopes with her, an escapade that ends when the British ambassador intervenes to send the lady back to her husband. On one occasion, Peregrine is imprisoned by the city guard. At another time, he fights a duel with a musketeer as the result of an amorous adventure. He quarrels with a nobleman at a masked ball and is sent to the Bastille in company with an artist friend. After Pipes discovers his whereabouts and secures his release, Peregrine is ordered to leave France within three days.
On his way back to England, Peregrine becomes embroiled with a knight of Malta, quarrels with Pipes, and is captivated by a lady he meets in a carriage. Shortly afterward, he loses his carriage companion and resumes his earlier affair with Mrs. Hornbeck. Her husband interposes, and Peregrine is thrown into prison once more. After his release, the travelers proceeded to Antwerp and then to England. His uncle, who retains his affection for his wayward nephew, receives him with great joy.
On his return, Peregrine calls on Emilia, but he finds her indifferent to his attentions. He wastes no time in pining over a lost love but continues to disport himself in London and Bath, until he is called home by the final illness of his uncle. The old Commodore is buried according to his own directions, and he is remembered with great affection and respect by his nephew. His uncle wills a fortune of thirty thousand pounds and his house to Peregrine. After a vain attempt to reach a friendly understanding with his parents, Peregrine leaves the house to the tenancy of Hatchway and returns to London.
As a handsome, wealthy young bachelor, he indulges in extravagance and dissipation of all kinds. After exaggerated reports of his wealth are circulated, he is pursued by matchmaking mothers. Their efforts merely amuse him, but their designs give him entrance into the houses of the fashionable and the great.
Peregrine meets Emilia again and begins the same campaign to win her that were successful with his other light and casual loves. Disappointed in his attempts to seduce her, he takes advantage of the confusion attending a masquerade ball to try to overcome her by force. He is vigorously repulsed, and her uncle forbids him to see Emilia again.
He becomes the friend of a notorious lady who gives him a copy of her memoirs. The woman is Lady Vane, whose affairs with many lovers have created a great scandal in London. Peregrine’s friend Cadwallader assumes the character of a fortune-teller and magician. In that way Peregrine is able to learn the secrets of the women who come to consult Cadwallader. Peregrine acquires a reputation as a clever man and a wit, and he uses his knowledge to advance his own position.
Grizzle dies, and Peregrine attends her funeral. On the road, he meets a vulgar young female beggar whom he dresses in fashionable clothes and teaches a set of polite phrases. It amuses him to introduce the beggar into his own fashionable world. When his contemptuous joke is at last exposed, he loses many of his fine friends. Peregrine decides to retrench. He cuts down his foolish expenses and makes loans at a good rate of interest. He is persuaded to stand for Parliament. This decision is taken after he meets Emilia at her sister’s wedding, and he begs the sister to intercede for him. His political venture, however, costs more money than he expects. After he loses the election, he is, for the first time in his life, faced with the need for mature reflection on himself and his world.
His affairs go from bad to worse. A mortgage that he holds proves worthless. A friend for whom he endorsed a note defaults. Reduced at last to complete ruin, he tries to earn money by writing translations and satires. He is again thrown into jail after the publication of a satire directed against an influential politician.
His old friends, Hatchway and Pipes, remain loyal to him in his adversity. Each brings his savings to the Fleet prison and offers them to Peregrine, but he refuses to accept their aid. It is his intention to earn money for his release by his writing or else starve in the attempt.
Emilia’s brother, Captain Gauntlet, learns that he was promoted to his rank largely through Peregrine’s services in the days of his prosperity. Discovering Peregrine’s plight, he sets about to relieve his benefactor. Peregrine has an unexpected bit of luck when one of his debtors repays a loan of seven hundred pounds. Emilia inherits ten thousand pounds and offers the money and her hand to Peregrine. Although he is touched by her generosity and forgiveness, he reluctantly refuses to burden her with his debts and degradation.
Peregrine is saved by the death of his father, who dies intestate. Legal heir to his father’s fortune, he is able to leave Fleet prison and take immediate possession of his estate. Having settled an allowance upon his mother, who goes to live in another part of the country, Peregrine hastens to ask for Emilia’s hand in marriage. With his bride, he settles down to lead the life of a country squire.
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