Last Updated on May 10, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1186
Harry Coningsby is fourteen years old when he meets his grandfather, the Marquis of Monmouth, for the first time. He was placed in his grandfather’s charge when he was very young with the understanding that his widowed mother, a commoner, was never to see him again. He was turned over, sight unseen, to the care of Mr. Rigby, a member of Parliament who sat for one of Lord Monmouth’s ten boroughs.
Lord Monmouth, who preferred to live abroad, returns to his native land in 1832 in order to help fight the Reform Bill. Hearing favorable reports of his grandson, he orders Mr. Rigby to bring the boy from Eton to Monmouth House. Unfortunately, young Coningsby is unable to put out of his mind thoughts of his mother, who died when he was nine years old, and he bursts into tears at the sight of his grandfather. Lord Monmouth, disgusted by this sign of weakness, orders him to be led away. He thinks to himself that the sentimental boy’s future probably lies with the church. Fortunately, the boy becomes friendly with the marquis’s guests, Princess Colonna and her stepdaughter, Lucretia. The princess passes on such glowing descriptions of Coningsby to his grandfather that they are on excellent terms by the time he returns to school.
At Eton, one of Coningsby’s close friends is Oswald Millbank, a manufacturer’s son. When Coningsby leaves Eton in 1835, he explores Manchester’s factories before going to Coningsby Castle to join his grandfather. During his journey, he visits the Millbank mills. Oswald is abroad, but he is hospitably greeted by his friend’s father. At the Millbank mansion, Coningsby meets beautiful but shy young Edith Millbank and learns from her Whig father that he favors the rise of a new force in government—a natural aristocracy of able men, not one composed of hereditary peers.
Before departing for Coningsby Castle, young Coningsby is tempted to inquire about the striking portrait of a woman that graces the dining room wall. His host, much upset by his question, makes a brusque, evasive answer.
Lord Monmouth, backing Mr. Rigby for reelection to Parliament, returns to his borough and schedules an elaborate program of dances, receptions, and plays to gain a following for his Conservative candidate. Princess Colonna and Lucretia are again his grandfather’s guests. Coningsby has no need, however, to confine his attentions to them; as Lord Monmouth’s kinsman and possible heir, he finds himself much sought after by society. He also finds time to encourage Flora, a member of the troupe of actors entertaining the marquis’s guests. The girl is shy and suffers from stage fright.
Here Coningsby meets Sidonia, a fabulously wealthy young Jew. Coningsby finds his new friend impartial in his political judgments, not only because his fortune allows him to be just but also because his religion disqualifies him as a voter. During their lengthy discussions, Sidonia teaches him to look to the national character for England’s salvation. He believes that the country’s weakness lies in developing class conflicts.
Lucretia makes a brief effort to attract Coningsby when she observes the favor in which his grandfather holds him, but, before long, she finds Sidonia, a polished man of the world, more intriguing. Sidonia, however, is not to be captured. He is attracted by others’ intellects, and Lucretia cannot meet him on his own level.
After his holiday, Coningsby goes to Cambridge for his last years of study. During his first year there, King William IV dies, and the Conservative cause falls in defeat. Mr. Rigby is, as he was for many years, the candidate from his borough, and with the marquis to back him, his victory seems certain until Mr. Millbank enters the field. The manufacturer and the marquis were enemies for many years, and their feud reaches a climax when Millbank not only buys Hellingsley, an adjoining estate that Lord Monmouth long coveted, but also defeats Monmouth’s candidate.
Prepared for the worst, the defeated Mr. Rigby goes to Monmouth House, where the marquis is in residence. He is pleasantly disappointed, however, for his employer’s thoughts are not on him. Lord Monmouth is preparing to marry Lucretia, who is determined at least to obtain power and riches through marriage even if she cannot have the man she desires. A year after the wedding, Coningsby is invited to join his grandfather and his bride in Paris for Christmas. Stopping at his banker’s on his way through London, he is given a package of his mother’s correspondence. In the packet is a locket with an exact copy of the portrait he saw at Millbank. It is a picture of his mother.
While visiting an art gallery in Paris with Sidonia, Coningsby again meets Edith, who is traveling with her relatives, Lord and Lady Wallinger. Coningsby, who falls in love with her immediately, is distressed to hear reports that Sidonia intends to marry her. Finding the couple conversing on familiar terms one evening, he regretfully decides to withdraw from the scene. He returns to England. Disappointed in love, Coningsby devotes himself to his studies for the remainder of his stay at Cambridge. Then, learning that Edith did not marry and that Sidonia is no more than an old family friend, he goes to Coningsby Castle in order to be near the Millbanks.
Coningsby spends every possible moment with Edith and her family during the next few weeks. When her father discovers the lovers’ feelings, he asks Coningsby to leave. He will not, he explains, submit his daughter to the same fate the young man’s mother suffered at Lord Monmouth’s hands. In this manner, Coningsby learns that his mother was once Mr. Millbank’s fiancé. Leaving Hellingsley, Coningsby goes on a sea voyage from which he is called home by the marquis. Parliament faces another crisis, and Lord Monmouth decides that Coningsby should stand as his candidate. Coningsby refuses, for he is of the opinion that men should cut across party lines to establish recognition of the bond between property and labor. The same day that Lord Monmouth faces his rebellious grandson, he separates from Lucretia, who proves unfaithful.
The marquis dies at Christmas of that year. He leaves most of his fortune to Flora, who turns out to be his natural daughter. Coningsby is cut off with the interest on ten thousand pounds. Deeply disappointed in his expectations, Coningsby gives up his clubs and most of his friends and begins to study law. He resigns himself to the prospect of years of drudgery when Mr. Millbank repents his decision. The manufacturer withdraws his candidacy in the 1840 election to back Coningsby as the Tory candidate. Rigby is his rival candidate, but he is easily defeated. A few months later, Edith becomes Coningsby’s bride and goes with him to live at Hellingsley, their wedding present from Mr. Millbank. As a final blessing, though not an unmixed one, Flora, who was always weak, dies, leaving the fortune she inherited to the man who befriended her many years before at Coningsby Castle.