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Last Updated on January 11, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1678

First published: 1862

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Domestic romance

Time of work: Early nineteenth century

Locale: England

Principal Characters:

Charles Ravenshoe, a member of the old House of Ravenshoe

Father Mackworth, a resident priest

William Horton, a groom and a friend of Charles

Adelaide Summers, a vain girl

Mary Corby, the ward of the Ravenshoes

Cuthbert, the older brother of Charles

Lord Saltire, an atheist and dandy

The Story:

The House of Ravenshoe had long been a bastion of Catholicism in England, and the Church of Rome had for generations assigned a resident priest to the household. When he reached manhood, Densil Ravenshoe showed a rebellious spirit by going off to London and consorting with Lord Saltire, a notorious atheist. After he had been imprisoned for his debts, his father sent the resident priest to bail him out.

For a while, Densil was reconciled to priestly rule, but the new Father Mackworth had his difficulties with him. Densil at last married a Protestant woman, to the consternation of the Church. Five years went by, and Densil had no children. Father Mackworth was thinking of asking for another assignment, but what he heard when he was eavesdropping one evening caused him to stay on at Ravenshoe. Cuthbert, Densil’s first son, was born, and the priest had the satisfaction of baptizing him in the true faith.

A second son, Charles, was born five years later. Densil’s wife died in childbirth, and shortly the terrible truth came out: Densil had promised to bring up his second son as a Protestant. Charles was given to a nurse, Norah, the wife of James Horton, the gamekeeper. She had a boy, William, just a week older than Charles, and she gladly accepted her new charge. Resolved that a Protestant should never own Ravenshoe, Father Mackworth made his plans early.

Charles was a cheerful lad, well liked by all. When he was ten years old, he went to visit at Ranford, the estate of the Ascots, who were related to the Ravenshoes. Charles was immediately accepted by his Protestant relations; Cuthbert had never been able to win their love. At Ranford, Charles met beautiful, imperious Adelaide Summers, a ward of Lady Ascot, and promptly fell in love with her. Another new friend was the famous Lord Saltire, who became fond of the boy.

There was a great storm at Ravenshoe. In the bay, a ship went down, split on a rock. Only a few were saved; among them was Mary Corby, the daughter of the captain. She was a lovely girl who was accepted as one of the family. She soon fell in love with Charles.

At Oxford, Charles had two intimate friends, Lord Welter, his cousin from Ranford, and John Marston, a scholar. Marston was a good influence over Charles, but Welter was a brutal, arrogant bully. Unfortunately, Charles followed Welter’s habits of drinking, brawling, and gaming. After a wild night of carousing, both Charles and Welter were sent down from the university. To delay his homecoming, Charles stopped off for a visit at Ranford. Lord Saltire helped him make his peace with his father. During his visit, he became engaged to Adelaide.

Charles spent several months of enforced vacation at Ravenshoe. During that time, Welter and Marston both came to see him. Marston proposed to Mary, but she refused him. This period was marred by Father Mackworth, who seemed an evil genius to Charles. Ellen Horton, William’s younger sister, ran away because of some trouble that seemed to be connected with Father Mackworth. At the beginning of the next term, Charles went back to Oxford.

His stay was brief, for he was recalled by the death of his father. Father Mackworth was in possession of a ruinous secret that Cuthbert offered to buy for ten thousand pounds. Father Mackworth refused money, but to keep Charles from inheriting Ravenshoe, he revealed that Norah had switched babies long ago; Charles was really her own son, and William Horton, the groom, was a Ravenshoe. William, a Catholic, became second in line to own Ravenshoe. Distraught, Charles rushed to Ranford to see Adelaide; he learned there that she had run away with Welter.

He called himself Charles Horton and took service with Lieutenant Hornby. As a servant, he learned that Ellen, his own sister, had been Welter’s mistress; now she was a maid in the same household with Adelaide, Welter’s new mistress. Welter and Adelaide lived by gambling. Charles had an interview with Welter, who excused his villainy by saying that he had not known that Ellen was Charles’s sister. In reality, Charles was well rid of the scheming Adelaide. Mary had become a governess. After seeing her from a distance, Charles enlisted in the army to fight against the Russians.

The Ascot family, heavily in debt, had put all of their hopes on a horse they had entered in the Derby. In a desperate attempt to recoup his fortunes, Lord Ascot substituted a less famous jockey and bet against his own horse. The Ascot entry won, and the family was ruined. At his father’s death, Welter became Lord Ascot. Although he had married Adelaide by that time, society ignored her.

In the Crimea, Charles took part in the famous charge of the Six Hundred at Balaklava. Hornby was killed, and Charles was wounded. Invalided home, he took service again as a groom under an officer with whom he had served. He hoped to remain and eventually to find his sister Ellen. His health remained poor.

When William made a trip to Sevastopol to look for Charles, a lying soldier had convinced him that Charles was dead. When he heard the news, Lord Saltire made a new will, bequeathing a large sum to Mary but leaving the bulk of his fortune to Welter and Adelaide.

At last, Welter and his wife felt secure and began to move freely in society. One night, to his horror, Welter recognized Charles in a tavern. Adelaide wanted Welter to keep still, but her husband, conscience-stricken, informed Lord Saltire, who prepared to make a new will immediately; but the great lord died before morning.

Charles was nursed back to health at Ranford after an operation to heal his war wound. When he returned to Ravenshoe, he was a guest of William, now in control of the estate since Cuthbert’s death by drowning. Lady Ascot, however, had started a chain of inquiries that threatened Father Mackworth’s design. Finally paralyzed after a stroke, he summoned Ellen, now a nun, and through a wedding certificate in her keeping, the truth came out. James Horton, the father of Charles and Ellen, had always been looked upon as the illegitimate son of Densil’s father, Petre Ravenshoe. Petre, however, had really married James’s mother, and so Charles was the true heir of Ravenshoe after all. Father Mackworth had at one time possessed the marriage certificate, but Ellen had stolen it when she ran away. Her return with the certificate provided proof of Father Mackworth’s duplicity.

Ellen returned to her nursing duties; Father Mackworth died after begging forgiveness of the heir he had dispossessed. Charles, the Protestant owner of Ravenshoe, made ample provision for his good friend William and the two were married in a double ceremony—Charles to the faithful Mary and William to his childhood sweetheart. At the celebration, Welter acknowledged that Lord Saltire’s estate really belonged to Charles. Adelaide had become a permanent invalid after a riding accident; as a result, they would never have children. In reparation, Welter had willed his entire fortune to Charles.

Critical Evaluation:

Appropriately, Henry Kingsley dedicated his second and best novel, RAVENSHOE, to his older brother Charles; not only did the brothers hold each other in high esteem and affection, but their writing shared some common virtues and reflected similar interests and predilections. RAVENSHOE, like WESTWARD HO!, is distinguished by typical Kingsley virtues: lively descriptions of noble, manly deeds; beautiful pictures of English sea and countryside; a good-humored joviality of tone; and an invigorating sense of the author’s enthusiastic love of life. At the same time, Kingsley’s characteristic weaknesses are also evident in RAVENSHOE; the plot is encumbered with too many incidents, the style is careless, the narrative flow is disrupted by too frequent authorial intrusions, and the story line is often melodramatic and implausible.

The most attractive feature of the novel is the characterization of Charles Ravenshoe. He hovers somewhere between obstinacy and determination, foolishness and whimsy, rebelliousness and independence; in the end, however, he always has the reader’s affection and sympathy. The novel is essentially the story of the good-hearted, exuberant boy who must learn, through suffering and hardship, to accept the responsibilities of manhood. He needs to temper his boyish boisterousness with levelheaded, adult patience and discipline; his animal energy and high spirits must eventually find constructive and worthy outlets. Kingsley shows the external steps of this growth process in Charles, who at the close of the novel is a sober, dreamy, and even somewhat melancholy man, although he does not probe deeply into the hero’s private thoughts, emotions, or motivations. In addition to Charles, RAVENSHOE contains some memorable minor characters. The implacable enemies, Lady Ascot and Lady Hainault, are delightful comic creations; the villainous Jesuit, Father Mackworth, while he is a one-dimensional figure, nevertheless gains depth and life temporarily in scenes such as the moving description of Cuthbert’s drowning. Lord Saltire, the atheist considered in his youth to be the devil incarnate, is an excellent example of the traditional type of the elderly and respectable reformed roue.

RAVENSHOE is distinguished by its atmosphere of vitality and humor pervaded by a regretful sense of melancholy at the passing of the traditions of England’s old rural houses. Although even the most avid admirers of Kingsley’s fiction do not claim him as one of the great British novelists, they know the enjoyment that awaits readers of RAVENSHOE in the form of spirited fun and excellent entertainment.

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