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Last Updated on January 12, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1542

First published: 1841, book; 1840-1841, serial

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Picaresque romance

Time of work: 1808-1812

Locale: Ireland and Europe

Principal Characters:

Charles O’Malley, an Irish dragoon

Godfrey O’Malley, his uncle

William Considine, a family friend

Captain Hammersley, O’Malley’s rival

General Dashwood

Lucy...

(The entire section contains 1542 words.)

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First published: 1841, book; 1840-1841, serial

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Picaresque romance

Time of work: 1808-1812

Locale: Ireland and Europe

Principal Characters:

Charles O’Malley, an Irish dragoon

Godfrey O’Malley, his uncle

William Considine, a family friend

Captain Hammersley, O’Malley’s rival

General Dashwood

Lucy Dashwood, his daughter

The Story:

At age seventeen, Charles O’Malley was tall and broad-shouldered, deadly with a gun and sure in the saddle. He possessed in abundance the qualities of generosity and honor expected of Godfrey O’Malley’s nephew. Godfrey, of O’Malley Castle, Galway, was still a good man on a horse and quick to pass the bottle. In his ruined old castle hard by the River Shannon, he held the staunch affections of his tenants.

Old Godfrey was standing for election to the Irish Parliament. Unable to leave home during the election campaign, he sent Charles to the home of a distant cousin named Blake to ask his support in the coming election. Blake, however, belonged to the opposition, and although Charles did his best to win help for his uncle, he hardly knew how to handle the situation.

Part of the trouble was Lucy Dashwood. She and her father were visiting Blake while the General tried to buy some good Galway property. Charles was jealous of the General’s aide, Captain Hammersley, who was attentive to Lucy. At a fox hunt, Charles led the way at first, but Hammersley kept up with him. Charles’s horse fell backward in jumping a wall. With cool daring, Charles kept on and took a ditch bordered by a stone rampart. Hammersley, not to be outdone, took the ditch too but fell heavily. Charles was first at the kill, but both he and Hammersley had to spend several days in bed.

One night at dinner, one of the guests spoke insultingly of Godfrey O’Malley, and Charles threw a wineglass in his face. Billy Considine, who had been in more duels than any other Irishman in Galway, arranged the affair as Charles’s second. The duel came out in Charles’s favor, and he left his man for dead on the field. Luckily the man recovered, and Charles escaped serious consequences for his rashness.

Charles went to Dublin to study law. Chance led him to share a room there with Frank Webber. For Charles, college life became a series of dinners, brawls, and escapades, all under the leadership of Frank.

While in Dublin, Charles saw Lucy again, but she was distant to him. Hammersley was now a favored suitor. Since he seemed so unfitted for study, Charles became increasingly attracted to military life. Perhaps Lucy would approve his suit if he became a dashing dragoon. Godfrey arranged for a commission through General Dashwood, and Charles became an ensign.

His first duty was in Portugal. Napoleon had invaded the peninsula, and England was sending aid to her Portuguese and Spanish allies. In Lisbon, Charles’s superb horsemanship saved Donna Inez from injury. His friendship with Donna Inez was progressing satisfactorily when he learned that Inez was a close acquaintance of Lucy Dashwood.

At his own request, Charles was sent to the front. There he soon distinguished himself by bravery in battle and was promoted to a lieutenancy.

Lucy had given him letters for Hammersley. When Charles delivered them, Hammersley turned pale and insulted him. Only the good offices of Captain Powers prevented a duel.

Charles saw action at Talavera and Ciudad Roderigo. In one engagement, he sneaked under cover of darkness to the French trenches, and by moving the engineers’ measuring tape, he caused the French to dig their trenches right under the British guns. Wherever Charles went, his man Michael Free looked out for his master, polished his buttons, stole food for him, and made love to all the girls.

After Charles received his captaincy, news came from home that the O’Malley estates were in serious trouble. The rents were falling off, mortgages were coming due, and Godfrey’s gout had crippled him. Charles went home on leave, arriving in Galway shortly after his uncle’s death. There was little money for the many debts, and the estate would require close management. Because a last letter from his uncle had asked him to stay in Galway, Charles decided to sell his commission and retire to civil life.

Billy Considine, who acted as his adviser, told him a distressing story. General Dashwood had sent an agent to Galway to buy property. Thinking of Dashwood as an English interloper, Godfrey had written him a harsh letter of warning to stay out of Ireland. In spite of his gout, Godfrey had offered to go to England to do battle with the general. Billy himself had sent a direct challenge to Dashwood. The general had answered in a mild tone, and the two hotheaded Irishmen felt their honor had been vindicated. Charles, however, heard the story with a heavy heart. Lucy seemed lost to him forever. For two years, Charles led a secluded life, scarcely quitting his farm.

Charles and Michael, his servant, were in Dublin on the day news came of Napoleon’s return from Elba, and Charles decided to go back into the army. He and Michael went to London. There he was appointed to his old rank on the general staff.

Charles arrived in Brussels just before Waterloo. The Belgian city was crowded. General Dashwood and Lucy were there, as well as Donna Inez and her father. Charles was safe in one quarter, however, for Captain Powers and Inez were to be married. One day in a park, Lucy sat down alone to await her father. Hammersley came to her and asked hoarsely if he could ever hope for her hand. Although not meaning to eavesdrop, Charles heard Lucy dismiss Hammersley. Charles saw Lucy again at the ball, but she seemed as distant and cool as ever.

Charles became a special courier. In the discharge of his duties, he was captured by the French and thrown into prison. To his amazement, his cell mate was General Dashwood, condemned to die for having used spies against the French. St. Croix, a French officer whom Charles had befriended in Spain, offered to help him escape. Unselfishly, Charles let General Dashwood go in his place. Napoleon himself summoned Charles to an audience, and throughout the battle of Waterloo, he saw the action from the French lines. He was watching his chances, however, and when the French troops were scattered, he made his way back to the English lines.

After Charles’s heroic action in saving her father from execution, Lucy could no longer refuse him. Charles and Lucy went back to Galway to stay, and the Irish tenantry bared their heads in welcome to the new mistress of O’Malley Castle.

Critical Evaluation:

CHARLES O’MALLEY portrays a world that existed for very few people, if, indeed, it existed at all. It is a romantic and adventurous world shown in the novel, one in which honor rises above all other considerations: honor in the hunt, in battle, in politics, and in love. If necessary, duels will be fought to preserve this honor. The code can never be broken without losing caste, and the “fair sex” must be worshiped and, at all times, protected. The characters in the novel have a multitude of eccentricities of personality and behavior but hold conventional values and are redeemed by conventional virtues. Only in such a romantic never-never land could the protagonist’s life be determined by the casual word of a girl (when Lucy remarks that any man worth noticing should be a dragoon).

The narrative contains numerous anecdotes; many have little to do directly with the plot but are often amusing. Much of the humor relies on exaggerated personality quirks or on outlandish behavior, but the customs and habits of the Irish come in for a good share of humorous play, particularly the subjects of death, wakes, and drinking. The accounts of Irish electioneering at the beginning of the nineteenth century are interesting and often possess a more unforced and natural humor than many of the other tales. However, Charles Lever is not a satirist at heart. He ridicules rather than satirizes people and positions, as with Sir Harry Boyle, the “well-known member of the Irish House of Commons” who has so got into the “habit of making bulls that I can’t write sense when I want it.”

This thousand-page novel is the kind of book that once was read aloud by the fire to pass away long evenings. Today, readers would be less patient with its rambling and not always witty digressions. Many nuggets of rich and genuine humor and innocent gaiety, nevertheless, are buried in the book. Charles is a naive hero, and, in many respects, an Irish cousin of Tom Jones; he is infectiously likable, whatever his mistakes. It is no surprise to the reader that he seems to spend a great part of his time rescuing the beautiful Lucy, or that, in the end, they are married. Anything can happen in such a romantic world, even a personal summons from Napoleon and permission to watch the battle of Waterloo from the French side.

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