In the spring of 1837, the Reform Bill is in force for five years and the king, William IV, is dying. A new election is called as the youthful Queen Victoria ascends the throne. One of the new Conservative Party members of Parliament is Charles Egremont, younger brother of Lord Marney. Their mother, Lady Marney, set up her son’s election and helped to defray some expenses. Egremont asks his brother to defray the rest.
While visiting the ruins of Marney Abbey, Egremont meets two unusual men, Walter Gerard and Stephen Morley, and hears Gerard’s daughter, Sybil, sing. Although only brief, the meeting makes a deep impression on him. Egremont, with other family members, then goes to visit Mowbray Castle, the home of the de Mowbrays. Lord Marney wants his brother to marry Lady Joan, heir to the rich estates, thus solving Egremont’s financial problems. Egremont hardly notices her.
The castle stands just outside Mowbray, a large manufacturing town in the north of England. The wretched life and amusements of the working people contrast with the high life of the castle. The only link is Mr. St. Lys, the reforming vicar of Mowbray, himself the younger son of aristocracy.
Egremont becomes interested in the political views of Gerard and Morley, who live just outside Mowbray, and he wishes to see the real living conditions of the people. Visiting Warner, an impoverished handloom weaver, with St. Lys, Egremont meets Sybil, who regularly engages in acts of charity out of Mowbray Convent.
On the Marneys’ return home, the two brothers have a terrible argument about expenses and Marney’s wife. Egremont walks out and, Parliament being in recess, rents a cottage near Gerard and takes on the alias of Mr. Franklin, so that he can more easily hold lengthy discussions with Gerard, Morley, and Sybil. He also visits a nearby model factory run by the Traffords who, like the Gerards, are Roman Catholics. Morley’s and Gerard’s views are widely different even though both are active Chartists (a working-class movement for political reform). They are both also interested in pursuing certain claims to the...
(The entire section is 872 words.)