The elder Thomas Newcome marries his childhood sweetheart, who dies after giving birth to their son, who is named for him. Thomas remarries, and his second wife has two sons, Brian and Hobson. Young Thomas proves to be a trial to his stepmother and when he is old enough is sent to India, where he later becomes a colonel. He marries and has a son, Clive, whom he loves with a passion far beyond the normal devotion of a father. Having lost his mother, little Clive is sent to England to begin his education.
Brian and Hobson Newcome inherit their mother’s wealthy banking house. Brian marries Lady Ann, who is well known in London for her lavish parties. After little Clive spends about seven years in England, his impatient father crosses the ocean to join him. He expects to receive a warm welcome from his two half brothers, Brian and Hobson. Much to his bewilderment, the bankers receive him politely but coldly and pass on the responsibility of entertaining him to young Barnes, Brian’s son, a social gadfly and a familiar figure in London’s clubs.
Colonel Thomas Newcome’s late wife has a sister and a brother. The sister, Miss Honeyman, runs a boardinghouse in Brighton, where little Alfred and Ethel go with their mother, Lady Ann, for a vacation; Colonel Newcome and Clive also arrive for a visit. The brother, Mr. Honeyman, also lives in Brighton, where the keeper’s young son, John James Ridley, delights in drawing pictures from the storybooks that he finds in Mr. Honeyman’s room. Clive, who aspires to be an artist, delights in Ridley’s drawings; Ethel becomes extremely fond of the colonel and his unaffected manner. The colonel’s great love for children causes him to be a favorite with all the Newcome youngsters, but it is fair-haired little Ethel who wins his heart with her simple, adoring ways and her sincerity.
Colonel Newcome buys a house in London, where he lives with Clive and Mr. James Binnie, the colonel’s friend. Clive is given a tutor, but the young man neglects his studies to sketch. If the colonel is disappointed by Clive’s choice of career, he says nothing and allows Clive to attend art school with his friend, Ridley. Clive is becoming a kind, generous, and considerate young man, and the colonel himself is satisfied that his son is growing up to be a fine man. He spends a considerable amount of money setting up a well-lighted studio for Clive in a house not far from his own. Meanwhile, Mr. Binnie fell from a horse and now is laid up in bed. Binnie’s widowed half sister, Mrs. Mackenzie, and her daughter, Rosey, comes to stay with the bedridden Binnie in the colonel’s house.
After a time, the colonel finds himself financially embarrassed. Realizing that he can no longer live on his income in London, he plans to return to India until he reaches a higher grade in the army. With a higher pension he will be able to afford to retire in London.
Ethel Newcome grows into a beautiful and charming young lady, and the colonel dreams of a match between Ethel and Clive; Lady Ann, however, places an early prohibition on such a match. She tells her brother-in-law that Ethel has been promised to Lord Kew, a relative of Lady Kew, Lady Ann’s mother. The other Newcomes believe that Rosey Mackenzie would be a fine wife for Clive.
After Colonel Newcome returns to India, leaving Clive with a substantial income, Clive and Ridley, now a successful artist, travel to Baden. There, Clive meets Ethel and the...
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other Newcome children, who are vacationing without the dampening presence of Lady Ann or her aristocratic mother. Ethel and Clive enjoy a short period of companionship and innocent pleasure, and Clive falls in love with his beautiful cousin. When Lady Ann and Lady Kew arrive, Clive is warned that he must not press his suit with Ethel any longer, for Ethel must marry in her own station of life. Clive is reminded that the family assumed that he had found a woman of his own social level in Miss Rosey Mackenzie. Clive bitterly takes his leave and goes to Italy with Ridley.
Ethel is beginning to rebel against the little niche that had been assigned to her in society, and she defies social custom and defends Clive against the charges her brother Barnes repeatedly brings against him. Finally, she breaks her engagement to young Lord Kew. When Clive hears of it, he returns to England to press his own suit once more.
In London, Clive has little time for his art, for he quickly becomes a favorite in London society, whose fashionable hosts think he is the only son of a wealthy officer in India. Against the wishes of her grandmother, Lady Kew, Ethel arranges frequent meetings with Clive. When Clive at last proposes marriage to her, she sadly explains to him that she will not inherit Lady Kew’s fortune unless she marries properly. Ethel tells him that her younger brothers and sisters need the money, for after her father’s death, Barnes Newcome had selfishly kept the family fortune for himself. Meanwhile, Lady Kew is wooing Lord Farintosh for Ethel.
After three years’ absence, Colonel Newcome returns to London. During his absence, the colonel amassed a large fortune for his son. Armed with this wealth, Colonel Newcome goes to Barnes with a proposal of marriage between Ethel and Clive. Barnes is polite but noncommittal. Shortly afterward, Lady Kew announces Ethel’s engagement to Lord Farintosh. Then, suddenly, Lady Kew dies, leaving her immense fortune to Ethel, whose only concern is that the money should go to her younger brothers and sisters.
Barnes’s marriage to Lady Clara is not a happy one. Soon after they are married, he begins to mistreat his wife, who at last decides that she can no longer stand his bullying of her and runs off with a lover, leaving her small children behind. The shock of the scandal and the subsequent divorce opens Ethel’s eyes to the dangers of loveless marriages. Realizing that she could never be happy with Lord Farintosh because she does not love him, she breaks her second engagement.
Ethel retires from her life in society to have children with Barnes. Clive, meanwhile, succumbs to the wishes of Mr. Binnie and his own father. Before the news of Ethel’s broken engagement with Lord Farintosh reaches the colonel and his son, Clive marries sweet-faced Rosey Mackenzie. Clive’s marriage is gentle but bare. The colonel is Rosey’s chief protector and her greater admirer. Clive tries to be a good husband, but inwardly he longs for more companionship. He had admitted to his father that he still loves Ethel.
The colonel had been handling the family income very unwisely since returning from India. Shortly after the birth of Clive’s son, Thomas, an Indian company in which the colonel had heavy investments failed, and he went bankrupt. Clive, Rosey, and colonel Newcome are now nearly penniless. Rosey’s mother, Mrs. Mackenzie, descends upon them and begins ruling them with such tyranny that life becomes unbearable for the colonel. With the help of some friends, he retires to a poorhouse and lives separated from his beloved son. Clive, who faithfully stays with Rosey and his abusive mother-in-law, is able to make a meager living by selling his drawings.
When Ethel learned of the pitiful condition of the old colonel, whom she had always loved, and of Clive’s distress, she contrived a plan whereby she was able to give them six thousand pounds without their knowing that it came from her. Rosey had been very ill. One night, Ethel visits Clive, and Mrs. Mackenzie raises such an indignant clamor that Rosey is seriously affected. She dies the following day. The colonel is broken in spirit and grows weaker by the day; soon afterward, he too dies.
Clive never lost his love for Ethel through all the years of his unfortunate marriage to Rosey. Many months after the death of his wife, he went once more to Baden with little Thomas. There it was said, by observers who knew the Newcomes, that Clive, Ethel, and little Tommy were often seen walking together through the woods.