Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1594
Major Arthur Pendennis, a retired army officer, impeccably dressed, dignified, yet affable, sits in his London club looking over his mail and considering which of several invitations will be most advantageous to accept. He leaves until last a letter from his sister-in-law, which begs him to come to Fairoaks because her son Arthur, who is known to the family as Pen, is infatuated with an actress twelve years older than himself and insists on marrying the woman. Helen Pendennis implores the major, who is young Pen’s guardian, to use his influence with the sixteen-year-old boy.
Although of an old family, Pen’s father, John Pendennis, was forced to earn his living as an apothecary and surgeon. He prospered financially, and at the age of forty-three he married Helen Thistlewood, a distant relative of one of his aristocratic patrons. His life’s aim was to be a gentleman, and by fortunate transactions he was able to buy the small estate of Fairoaks. He acquired family portraits and was henceforth known as Squire Pendennis. He referred proudly to his brother the major, who associated with well-known aristocrats. John died while his son was still a schoolboy. After that melancholy event, Pen took first place in the family, and his mother was solicitous about his welfare and happiness. She already planned that he should marry Laura Bell, his adopted sister and the orphan of the Reverend Francis Bell, whom she herself had loved years before.
Helen is horrified at Pen’s infatuation with an actress, but Pen, blind with youthful romance, sees Emily Costigan as the ideal of all womanhood. Although she is beautiful and her reputation is unquestioned, she is crude and unintelligent. Pen is introduced to her father, Captain Costigan, by Henry Foker, a dashing, wealthy young schoolmate. The captain is a shabby, rakish Irishman who is constantly finding his daughter’s income insufficient for the drinks he requires. He assumes that Pen is a wealthy young aristocrat and urges Emily to accept his proposal of marriage. Emily regards Pen as a child, but at the same time she is flattered by the serious attentions of a landed young gentleman.
By the time the major arrives at Fairoaks, Pen has almost won his indulgent mother’s consent. The major handles the situation adroitly. Using many references to his aristocratic friends, he hints that Pen, too, can be received in their homes if only he makes a brilliant marriage. Then he calls on Captain Costigan and informs him that Pen is dependent on his mother and that his prospects are only five hundred pounds a year. The captain weeps over the deceitfulness of man and gives up Pen’s letters and verses in return for a small loan. Emily writes Pen a short note that Pen thinks will drive him to distraction, but it does not. Meanwhile, the major arranges through his aristocratic and influential friends to give Emily an opportunity to play an engagement in London. Suffering over his broken love affair, Pen is so restless and moody it seems wise for him to join his friend, Henry, and attend the University of Oxbridge.
Pen enters the university posing as a moneyed aristocrat. By herself practicing rigid economies, his mother gives him an adequate allowance, and her son enters enthusiastically into all sorts of activities. His refined and diversified tastes lead him into expenditures far beyond his means. As a result, he ends his third year deeply in debt. He is made still more miserable when he fails an important examination. Overcome by remorse at his reckless spending and his thoughtlessness, he goes to London. There Major Pendennis treats his nephew with cold disapproval and ignores him. His mother, however, welcomes him home with affection and forgiveness. Laura offers a solution by suggesting that the money left her by her father be turned over to Pen to clear his debts. Laura also induces him to return to the university. When he receives his degree, he comes back to Fairoaks, still restless and depressed, until an event of local interest arouses him.
Clavering Park, the mansion owned by Sir Francis Clavering, is reopened. Sir Francis is a worthless spendthrift whose title is his only claim to respect. After living many years abroad, he advantageously married Jemima Amory, a widow recently returned from India. She was left a large fortune, and, although uneducated, she is well liked because of her generosity and good nature. In addition to the Claverings’ young son, the heir to the now great Clavering fortune, Lady Clavering has a daughter named Blanche by a previous marriage. Although extremely pretty, Blanche is a superficial, self-centered girl whose demure appearance disguises a hard and cruel disposition. Pen and Laura soon become friendly with their new neighbors, and Pen imagines himself in love with Blanche. Helen confides to Pen her dearest wish that he should marry Laura. Pen, conscious of the sacrifices his mother made for him and of Laura’s generosity, makes a grudging offer of marriage, which Laura spiritedly refuses.
His dignity is hurt, and he decides he will make a place for himself in the world; he goes to London to read for the law. Despite his good resolutions, he is unable to settle down to serious study. He becomes a young man-about-town who takes pride in the variety of his acquaintances. He shares rooms with George Warrington, a philosophic man whom Pen comes to respect and love. Through Warrington’s influence, Pen at last begins to earn his own living by writing. Eventually, he publishes a successful novel. Pen reads law, writes for a living, and spends his evenings at dinners and balls.
His disordered life finally results in a serious illness, and his mother and Laura go to London to care for him. Accompanied by George, Pen later goes abroad. Helen, worn out with worry over Pen, becomes ill and dies, and the party returns to Fairoaks for her burial. The estate is rented. Pen is now heir to the small fortune his mother leaves, and he returns to London. During his residence in London, his uncle again becomes actively interested in him. Feeling that Pen should improve his station in life, the shrewd major decides the Claverings could be useful to Pen, and he encourages his nephew to cultivate the family once more.
One night, Pen and the major are invited to a dinner given by the Claverings. While the men are sitting over cigars and wine, Colonel Altamont appears. He is drunk. It is known that, for some mysterious reason, Sir Francis Clavering gave this man large sums of money. Major Pendennis, who during his career in the army was stationed in India, immediately recognizes Altamont as Mr. Amory, Lady Clavering’s first husband. The major does not divulge his knowledge to anyone but Sir Francis, to whom he issues the ultimatum that Sir Francis must go to live abroad and that he must give his place in Parliament to Pen. If he refuses, the major threatens to expose the fact that Amory is still alive and that the marriage of Sir Francis and Lady Clavering is illegal. Another point the major makes is that Clavering Park should be left to Blanche Amory. Sir Francis has no choice but to agree.
Major Pendennis continues his intrigue by urging Pen to marry Blanche. Pen uneasily falls in with his uncle’s plans. He does not know how his place in Parliament was secured, but he does know that he is not in love with Blanche. He becomes engaged to her, however, and begins to campaign for his seat in Parliament. Laura, who was abroad as companion to Lady Rockminster, returns to the area. When Pen sees her again, he begins to regret his plan to marry Blanche.
The major’s valet, Morgan, learns of the Claverings’ complicated marriage situation and plans blackmail on his own account. After a violent quarrel with the major, Morgan tells Pen how Major Pendennis forced Sir Francis to give up his seat in Parliament in favor of Pen. Pen is shocked by this news and by his uncle’s unethical methods. He and Laura agree that he should give up his candidacy for the district, but that he must, although he loves Laura, go on with his plans to marry Blanche, after having proposed to her. This sacrifice to honor, however, proves unnecessary, for Pen discovers that Blanche has forsaken him for his old friend Henry, who has just inherited a large fortune. Their marriage leaves Pen free to wed Laura. Because Lady Rockminster holds Laura in great affection, the marriage is approved even by the class-conscious major.
The simple wedding of Pen and Laura replaces the fashionable one that was planned for Clavering Church. Blanche does not marry Henry. When he learns by chance that her father is still alive and that Blanche has kept the knowledge from him, he drops his plans to marry her. Blanche becomes the wife of a French count. Lady Clavering, who truly believed her husband dead, is horrified to learn that Amory is still alive, but the legality of her marriage to Sir Francis is established when it is learned that Amory contracted several marriages before the one with her.
Pen and Laura live happily. Laura has expectations from her friend and patroness, Lady Rockminster, and Fairoaks increases in value because the new railroad buys rights through it. Later, when Sir Francis dies, Pen is elected to Parliament. He has almost forgetten how to be a snob.