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Last Updated on January 11, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1900

First published: 1853

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Picaresque romance

Time of work: Early nineteenth century

Locale: England

Principal Characters:

Digby Grand, a spirited young Englishman and an officer in the Guards

Sir Peregrine Grand, Digby’s father

Shadrach, a moneylender

Tom Spencer, Digby’s friend

Captain Levanter, a fellow officer

Colonel Cartouch, Digby’s commanding officer

Flora Belmont, Digby’s beloved

The Story:

Digby Grand’s father, Sir Peregrine Grand of Haverley Hall, had one fond wish with respect to his son: he wanted Digby to be a man of fashion and to know his position in society. With that in mind, he decided that when Digby, then a youngster at Eton, should finish school, he would be commissioned in the British Army. Digby, taken with the idea, wished to have his appointment made at once.

As luck had it, Digby met General Sir Benjamin Burgonet, who was pleased with the young man. He made every effort to secure Digby’s commission. Within a few weeks, Digby received a letter announcing his commission in the army as an ensign in a regiment of infantry.

Digby Grand reported to his regiment’s headquarters in Scotland, where he rapidly adjusted to military life. Digby was an adventurous young man; he enjoyed sports and gambling and quickly became a sought-out addition to any party. He soon discovered, however, that the slim allowance provided to him by his father and his small pay as an ensign did not cover his large expenditures, and so he fell into the habit of gambling on horses, cards, and billiards to augment his income. Most of his fellow officers existed in much the same fashion.

While in Scotland, Digby had a narrow escape from marriage when an officer’s daughter, a woman in her thirties, persuaded Digby to become engaged. His friends saw through the woman’s plot, however, and rescued him from his predicament. He had the satisfaction of seeing her become instead the wife of Dubbs, the regimental drum major.

Shortly after that incident, Digby was sent to Canada for a tour of duty. Memorable events of that short tour were the slaughter of a huge bull moose and a love affair with a French-Canadian girl named Zoe. Colonel Cartouch, Digby’s commanding officer, befriended the high-spirited young man and prevented him from marrying the girl, because he felt that the teenage ensign was not yet ready for marriage.

Upon his return to England, Digby found himself with a new commission in Her Majesty’s service; his father had purchased a lieutenancy in the Life Guards for him during his absence in Canada. Digby was now in the most honored and social brigade in the service, the Guards being the units that were stationed in London. Within a short time, Digby had once again won a place in fashionable London life. He was voted into several of the choicest gambling clubs, appeared in the best society, and became accepted by some well-known people. One of his friends was a youthful peer named St. Heliers; another was an officer named Levanter; a third was Mrs. Mantrap, a woman who basked in the attentions of young men.

To maintain his life of ease, including gambling for high stakes, maintaining good rooms, drinking only the best wines, and buying expensive horses, required all of Digby’s resourcefulness. Because his resourcefulness was not sufficient at times, his friend Levanter introduced him to a moneylender named Shadrach, who was quite willing to lend Digby money at a high rate of interest, the principal to be repaid when Digby inherited the family estates. Not once but many times Digby borrowed from Shadrach.

One day, while in charge of a small group of military police at parade, Digby met Flora Belmont, who had attended the parade with her father, a retired colonel. Immediately Digby fell in love, in spite of the fact that the colonel had little or nothing to pass on to his daughter in the way of a fortune.

On his twenty-first birthday, spurred on by his own love and that which Flora Belmont had declared for him, Digby went home to Haverley Hall to request a definite and sizable income from his father so that he and Flora could be married. Instead of being happy, Sir Peregrine was furious that Digby would even think of marrying anyone but an heiress, for the Grand estate was in poor financial condition and Sir Peregrine had been counting on a brilliant marriage by his son to recoup the family fortunes.

Downhearted, Digby returned to duty in London. To while away the time, he continued his old life, living beyond his means and borrowing money to pay his expenses. He even borrowed from Shadrach when his boyhood chum, Tom Spencer, who was studying for holy orders at Oxford, had to sign the notes with him. For a time, Digby had an affair with Coralie de Rivolte, a famous dancer, but that romance ended, though only after Digby had made an enemy of a scar-faced Spaniard who seemed to be the dancer’s relative.

Eventually, Digby got so deeply into debt that only a change of regiments could help him. As an officer in the Guards, he had too many social responsibilities, and he exchanged commissions with an officer in a dragoon regiment stationed in Kent, at some distance from London. Within a few weeks, he made still another move. Old General Sir Benjamin Burgonet, who had secured Digby’s original commission, made him his aide, and Digby prepared to go with the General to India. He was somewhat aghast, however, to learn that the girl who had married the drum major was now Lady Burgonet.

In spite of his precautions, Digby was unable to leave England without falling into the hands of Shadrach and other creditors, who had him imprisoned for debt. To satisfy his creditors, Digby had to sell his commission and give up all he owned. At that black hour, word came that Sir Peregrine had died, leaving Digby with the title and the estate. When the will was settled, however, it became apparent that the estate was too heavily in debt to be of any use to the new heir. To salvage himself, Digby had to sell the land; he inherited only the title.

He was saved by a meeting with Tom Spencer, who had been prevented from finishing his degree at Oxford by an arrest made for a note he had signed on Digby’s behalf. Spencer, far from being downcast, had become a successful wine merchant. He took Digby into the business with him, and the two built up a flourishing trade. By that time, Digby had acquired a great deal more discretion and a few gray hairs.

After some years, Digby ran across his old commanding officer, Colonel Cartouch. The Colonel was engaged in prosecuting a man who had forged checks on his name, and the two discovered that the man was married to Coralie de Rivolte, Digby’s old love. That surprise was not the end, for the Colonel also discovered that Coralie was his own daughter by a Spanish woman who had run away from him after killing her sister, whom she believed in love with Cartouch.

The appearance of Coralie reminded Digby of Flora Belmont, the girl whom his father had forbidden him to marry because she lacked a fortune. Digby found her in mourning for her father, but she was still single. Digby learned through friends that she had remained faithful to him. In a short time, they had made plans for their approaching marriage. Digby Grand was ready to be tamed.

Critical Evaluation:

Because George J. Whyte-Melville’s works have been cataloged as sporting fiction, they have never been given their rightful place in the history of English literature, and most scholars pass them by completely. Although Whyte-Melville wrote particularly for the sporting world, his novels, especially CAPTAIN DIGBY GRAND (as it was originally titled), interested wider audiences in their time. His writings have an air of liveliness, a note of authenticity, and an ineffable freshness. DIGBY GRAND was Whyte-Melville’s first novel, and it was truly termed by the novelist an autobiography, for the author’s own early career as an officer in a Highland regiment and the Guards is mirrored in the novel. Digby Grand is, in fact, partly young Whyte-Melville. Considered in his time an authority on fox hunting, the author refers to the sport frequently in DIGBY GRAND, as in his other novels.

The values and traditions of Eton play a significant part in this rambling tale of “old boys.” The horseman and huntsman (the two aspects of the “gentleman” considered most important, aside from perfect grooming and decorum) are the models that the motherless hero aspires to emulate. His interests are as narrow as those of the people around him; lacking intellectual drive, he is content with a physically active but superficial existence. The military is considered the only acceptable career for a gentleman or sportsman such as he early considers himself. Cigars, sherry, and horses are the main interests of the men in the book except for brief encounters with a tepid form of romance.

The preparations for a career in the Guards are detailed with humor and enthusiasm, and the six-week voyage of the young soldier across the Atlantic is exhaustively presented. The author tends to overwhelm readers with unselective details, but the enthusiasm of the telling carries readers over the dull spots; the unusual facts and novelty of some of the events are often interesting in themselves, although they contribute to no pattern or plot in the book. The novel, like a genuine “autobiography” (as the book is subtitled), simply recounts one event after another. The life of the Guards, on duty in Canada is described with as much indefatigable detail as everything else in the narrative. The narrator-protagonist devotes much space to describing the scenery he encounters in his travels, from Niagara and Lake Erie to the northwoods sites of hunting parties to the fields and streams of England. In England, America, or wherever the hero is, horses, horse racing, and hunting play the major part in both his thoughts and actions.

The book is not subtle in either its humor or its efforts for effect. The names of most of the characters suggest caricatures rather than efforts to create fully developed personalities: for example, the reader encounters Admiral Portfire, Mr. Stubble, Arabella Ramrod, Lawyer Sheepskin, and Mrs. Mantrap. The heroines are all conventional, pale maidens with little personality of their own; they are merely mannequins of ethereal beauty upon which Digby can shine his admiration and devotion.

The strengths of the novel lie in the density of the narrative and the variety and vividness of the boldly sketched characterizations. Some of the characters are overdrawn, but others are humorous, colorful, and often entertaining. The accounts of the activities of the class portrayed (gambling, hunting, racing) are described with authenticity. As a record of the mid-Victorian period and the attitudes and occupations of its people, the book presents an interesting, if limited, portrait. The book is greatly flawed by the highest, most objective standards, but it has a place in literary history as an example of a type of popular novel and in social history as a document of a bygone era.

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