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Last Updated on January 15, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3397

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First published: 1844

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Historical romance

Time of work: Early nineteenth century

Locale: Ireland and France

Principal Characters:

Tom Burke, an Irish gentleman and a soldier of fortune

Anthony Basset, an unscrupulous estate lawyer

Darby M’Keown, called Darby the Blast, an Irish patriot

Charles de Meudon, a young French officer

Marie de Meudon, his sister

Captain Bubbleton, an English officer

The Marquis de Beauvais, a French aristocrat

General d’Auvergne, Tom’s benefactor

Captain Montague Crofts, Tom’s enemy

Napoleon Bonaparte

The Story:

Tom Burke was only a schoolboy when his father died, and the family physician and a rascally estate lawyer conspired to cheat him out of his inheritance as a younger son. Eton, private tutors, fine clothes, and the best horses and dogs had been provided for his older brother George; an obscure Dublin school and hand-me-downs had been considered good enough for fourteen-year-old Tom. As he sat in the shadows by his dying father’s bedside on a dark winter day, he overheard the doctor and the lawyer discuss an arrangement to have him articled to Anthony Basset, the lawyer, in return for the five hundred pounds left to Tom under his grandfather’s will.

The day after the funeral, hoping to escape his dreary prospects as a lawyer’s clerk, Tom took to the roads with Darby M’Keown, called by the peasants Darby the Blast, a piper belonging to one of the patriotic secret societies that had survived the disastrous rising of 1798. Several times he was almost overtaken by Basset’s agents or captured by British soldiers who were everywhere tracking down rebels in those troubled times. By chance, he was thrown into the company of Charles de Meudon, a young French officer who had volunteered to aid the cause of Irish independence. The Frenchman taught Tom languages and military science, capturing his boyish imagination with accounts of Napoleon’s victories at Marengo, Lodi, and Arcola. The sickly young officer knew that he would never live to return to his own country, and he made Tom promise that he would go to France to study at the Ecole Polytechnique and to be like a brother to his friend’s sister, Marie de Meudon. Charles died at the country retreat where he and Tom had gone together. Before his death, he gave the boy some French money to pay for his journey overseas.

Captured by the British at the time of de Meudon’s death, Tom was being taken to Dublin under guard when Darby the Blast appeared and provoked a scuffle with the militia. During the fight, Tom escaped. His only hope was to find the quarters of Captain Bubbleton, a bombastic English officer who had been kind to him some time before, and so he continued on his way to Dublin. While searching for the captain there, he was caught in a mob rioting before Parliament House. Struck over the head by a musket, he fell unconscious.

When he awoke, Tom found himself in Captain Bubbleton’s quarters, where the officer had carried the boy after finding him senseless in the street. Tom tried to tell the captain the true story of his experiences, but his rescuer, who always changed circumstances to suit his fantastic imagination, brushed the explanations aside. To Captain Bubbleton, Tom was a hero who had been wounded while fighting the Irish rebels, and the officers’ mess, delighted with the boy’s spirit, called him Tom Burke of Ours. Lord Castlereagh himself, the captain added, was concerned for Tom’s quick recovery.

Tom’s cuts and bruises soon healed under the nursing of the captain and his sister, Miss Anna Maria. One day, the captain reported that an officer was coming from the Castle to see the convalescent. To Tom’s dismay, the officer was one who was able to recognize him immediately as an associate of rebels. Lodged in jail, the boy was released when Basset appeared at the hearing and claimed his runaway apprentice. Nevertheless, Captain Bubbleton remained Tom’s good friend. At his intercession, the lawyer was persuaded to accept four hundred pounds of Tom’s inheritance money in exchange for the boy’s indenture papers.

Tom did become Tom Burke of Ours for a short time, although he was still determined to go to France at the first opportunity. The officers of the mess welcomed Captain Bubbleton’s charge in friendly fashion. One exception, however, was Captain Montague Crofts, who made little effort to conceal his dislike.

One evening, Darby the Blast disguised himself as an old woman and came to the barracks to give Tom a packet containing Charles de Meudon’s letter of credit and two checks on his banker, papers Tom had dropped while fleeing from the British soldiers. Tom and Darby were interrupted when a group of officers entered and called for a deck of cards to settle a wager between Bubbleton and Crofts. Hearing Bubbleton wagering heavily and knowing that his friend had not that much money on his person, Tom slipped the captain what he thought was a twenty-pound note. Instead, he gave him one of Charles de Meudon’s notes for two thousand livres. After the other officers had gone on duty, Crofts threatened to denounce the boy as a traitor and a spy for the French. When Tom stood up against his accuser, the enraged captain drew his sword and tried to run the boy through. Tom was wounded, but before Crofts could strike a second blow, Darby the Blast ran into the room and struck the officer to the floor, where he lay as if dead.

Aided by the disguised piper, Tom managed to walk by the sentry and reach a house by the river. There his wound was dressed. Before daybreak, he was aboard a smuggler’s vessel bound for France.

All went as Charles de Meudon had planned. Enrolled in the Polytechnique, Tom soon distinguished himself at the French military school. One day, the famous General d’Auvergne arrived to review the cadets, and Tom led a desperate charge in a mimic battle staged for the occasion. Knocked unconscious, he revived to find a young woman holding a cup of water to his lips. Half-dazed, he had the impression that he had met her somewhere before. At that moment, the group about him parted. He saw a short man with a pale, commanding face looking down at him, and he heard Napoleon saying that he should be given his brevet at once. Advanced in rank, Tom moved into new quarters. His roommate was Lieutenant Tascher, the nephew of Madame Bonaparte, from Guadaloupe.

Although he grumbled frequently because his kinsman gave him no preferment, Tascher was generously pleased when Tom received a commission in the Eighth Hussars, a billet the young Creole had also desired. The next day, Tom was invited to attend Madame Bonaparte’s reception at the Tuileries, and he went to a fashionable tailor to be fitted for a new uniform. The shop was filled with elegant young dandies who eyed Tom’s old cadet uniform with contempt. Taking exception to one lounger’s remarks, Tom called him insolent. The young man presented himself as the Marquis de Beauvais, willing to meet Tom with rapiers in the Bois de Boulogne the next morning.

Tom attended the reception in his old uniform, and he was graciously received by Madame Bonaparte. A gentleman pointed out the young ladies of the court. One was the girl whom he had found bending over him when he awoke after the mock battle at the Polytechnique. She was Mademoiselle de Rochefort, called the Rose of Provence. While wandering through the Tuileries, Tom overheard a conversation between Napoleon and Talleyrand and learned that the treaties of peace were soon to be broken. He also encountered young Henri de Beauvais, who apologized for his rude behavior of the morning. With his new friend, Tom went to a famous restaurant where a festive supper party was in progress. During the evening, he indiscreetly revealed the discussion he had overheard. He also learned that the Rose of Provence was the cousin of de Beauvais. Later, when he was questioned by a police agent, he got the impression that an attempt might be made to involve him in a political intrigue.

The war with England had begun, but Tom’s squadron remained on duty at Versailles. From time to time, he saw the Rose of Provence at a distance. One day, the Abbe d’Ervan, whom he had met in the company of de Beauvais, visited him. From his caller, Tom learned that de Beauvais was a Royalist and that the Rose of Provence, who had taken her mother’s name because of her family’s Royalist connections, was Charles de Meudon’s sister.

About to throw his lot with the Rebel Chouans, de Beauvais planned to see his cousin once more and sent the Abbe with a request that Tom pass his friend through the sentry lines. At last, Tom reluctantly agreed to do so. The next day, he encountered the girl in the gardens and revealed himself as her brother’s friend. That night, he helped de Beauvais to enter the palace grounds. Before he left, the young nobleman offered Tom a commission in the royal army; it was refused. Later, Marie reproached Tom for his seeming disloyalty in becoming embroiled with the Royalists.

Several months later, Tom received a note in which Marie begged him to warn, if possible, a party of Chouans who were to be trapped at the Chateau d’Ancre, de Beauvais among them. He arrived at the chateau, only to be captured when troops surrounded the old castle. He was arrested and charged with treason.

Tom was in prison during the reign of terror under the consulate, when the government repressed with harsh measures and bloodshed the Royalist uprising for the restoration of the Bourbons. Because of General d’Auvergne’s influence with Napoleon, however, he was not among those executed or sent to the galleys. Transferred to a military tribunal, he was released after de Beauvais surrendered and absolved the young Irishman of any part in the conspiracy. Restored to his rank and appointed to d’Auvergne’s staff, he was sent to the garrison at Mayence.

Napoleon became emperor. There were reports that the expedition against England would sail soon. In the midst of these warlike preparations, General d’Auvergne summoned Tom to Paris. There he revealed his plan to adopt Marie de Meudon as his daughter. Napoleon, however, refused to consent to the plan and insisted that d’Auvergne marry the girl in whom he took so great an interest. As the general’s aide, Tom was forced to witness the hurried wedding of the girl he loved in secret. After the ceremony, d’Auvergne left immediately for the front. He declared to Tom that he had made Marie his wife and that his only possible reparation would be to make her his widow.

After the battle of Austerlitz and now restored to Napoleon’s favor, Tom was one of the young officers named to the compagnie d’elite. In Paris, during those triumphant days of 1806, his closest friend was the Chevalier Duchesne, an officer who was secretly ready to serve either Bonapartists or Bourbonists to his own advantage. Their friendship cooled eventually, because the chevalier suspected Tom of being his rival for the hand of Pauline de Lacostellerie, an heiress related to the empress. When Duchesne swore that he never forgot his debt to a friend or an enemy, Tom expected a challenge to a duel, but before the affair could be arranged, he received orders to rejoin the army. At Jena, his display of courage and resourcefulness led to his recommendation for the Legion of Honor and a colonelcy.

Meanwhile, his enemy was working for his ruin. Shortly after the fall of Prussia, he was summoned to Marshal Berthier’s quarters at Potsdam. There he was shown an incriminating letter from Duchesne that had been seized in the mail. Duchesne, who had resigned his commission some time before, wrote as if to a fellow conspirator; the letter, filled with ridicule of the emperor and hints of sedition, was his means of revenging himself upon Tom. Realizing himself disgraced if the nature of the letter were revealed, Tom claimed a foreign officer’s privilege of resigning his grade and leaving the service.

He left for Paris with no ideas as to how he was to meet the future. General d’Auvergne and Tascher, his only real friends, were with the army in the field; having resigned his commission under questionable circumstances, he could not turn to them. In Paris, he made the acquaintance of a number of Royalists and at last consented to travel with an abbe who was going to Ireland on a secret political mission. Instead of the abbe, however, he met his former friend, Henri de Beauvais, who prevailed upon Tom in the name of their former friendship to convey some documents to the Irish patriots. Much as he had left Ireland ten years before, Tom returned on a smuggler’s ship at night.

In his delight at being home once more, he forgot the circumstances of his departure. He was surprised, therefore, when soon after his return to Dublin he was arrested on an old charge of murderous assault on Captain Crofts. Having survived the blow Darby the Blast had given him, Crofts was still eager for revenge. Meanwhile, Tom had also encountered Basset and had learned from him that his brother George was dead; he was now the heir to the Burke estates. Tom realized that he was involved in a deep plot, for Crofts, as Basset unintentionally revealed, was a distant kinsman who would inherit the property if Tom were out of the way. Crofts, however, was completely discredited at the trial. Darby the Blast, who had been transported to Australia some years before, returned in time to tell the true story of the assault and to accuse Crofts of other villainies, so that the judgment of the court turned against Tom’s designing enemy and kinsman.

Suddenly possessed of his good name and a fortune, Tom was glad to settle down to the quiet life of a country squire, with old Darby as his loyal pensioner and friend. For a long time, he paid no attention to events beyond the boundary of his estate. One day, he chanced upon a newspaper and read in it an account of the burning of Moscow. His interest in Napoleon and his former comrades in arms immediately revived. As disaster followed disaster for the French, he brooded more and more upon the falling fortunes of Napoleon. At last, he decided to offer his sword again in the emperor’s service. Crossing the channel in a fishing boat, he volunteered in the first French unit that he encountered. During the fierce fighting at Chaumiere, he stumbled upon the dead body of General d’Auvergne and with his own hands dug a grave for his old commander. At Montereau, his daring in blowing up a bridge won for him the cross of the Legion.

Wounded in that engagement, Tom was invalided at Fontainebleau. One evening, he heard hoofbeats and saw a file of dragoons drawn up before a distant wing of the palace. While he was walking in the garden that night, he saw Roustan, the emperor’s faithful mameluk, on guard in a lighted apartment. Defeated, his army gone, Napoleon was in retreat. The next morning, Tom awoke to find the courtyard filled with troops. From his window, he watched the emperor’s final farewell to his Old Guard. Napoleon was on his way into exile.

With wild excitement, Paris welcomed the restoration of the Bourbons. Tom, who stubbornly continued to wear the Bonapartist tricolor in his hat, was once attacked by an angry mob. He might have been killed if de Beauvais had not appeared to save his life. Later, as Tom was preparing to leave France forever, de Beauvais came to him and offered him a commission in the army of King Louis. Tom refused to renounce his allegiance to the fallen emperor. When they parted, the Frenchman handed him a note from Madame d’Auvergne, who asked Tom to call at her hotel that evening.

He found Marie dressed in mourning, but lovelier than ever. She was planning to leave France and wanted to give him some small keepsakes of her brother’s and the sword General d’Auvergne had worn at Jena. When she tried to remove from her finger the ring that was to be her own token of remembrance, the band stuck. At that, Tom begged her to give it to him where it was. While he stood telling the story of his long-concealed love, she smiled and placed her hand in his.

Critical Evaluation:

TOM BURKE OF OURS is an excellent example of the rough-and-ready style of fiction that made Charles Lever famous. The vivacity of the novel, the picture it presents of devil-may-care, hard-riding Irish gentry, and a certain down-to-earth comic realism, make it entertaining reading. The book presents a vivid picture of the life and sentiments prevalent in Ireland during the early nineteenth century.

Lever, the most popular of nineteenth century Irish novelists, was a great admirer of Napoleon, so much so that TOM BURKE OF OURS presents one of the most idealized portraits of that historical personage to be found in any literature. In a preface to this novel, Lever called the Napoleonic period the most wonderful and eventful in modern history. The story proper covers Napoleon’s career from the days of the first consulship to the fall of the empire. Although theatrical, the plot is absorbing, and the battle scenes, particularly those of Austerlitz, Jena, and the engagements of the famous “Week of Glory,” are presented with dash and brilliance. As a result, the book has the vividness and swift action of a good film. The chief defect of the work is the fact that Lever, intent upon telling a romantic story, maintains no consistent point of view in his presentation of either the history or the society of the period.

TOM BURKE OF OURS is the story of a second son, a younger brother who must make his own way in the world: a common story in British fiction. The first-person narration is not always plausible, and the style makes little effort at consistency, but the vitality of the writing sweeps the reader along. The characters are drawn with a bold brush and often seem to possess a life of their own. Darby M’Keown is particularly fine; a dynamic and forceful personality, he is an example of the Irish patriots of nearly two centuries ago, a man who held up the ideals of independence and of the French Revolution and Napoleon. Captain Bubbleton and his sister, Anna Maria, are quite different, although excellent characterizations; while they are genuinely humorous characters almost worthy of Dickens, the author pushes too hard in an effort to make them extraordinary. Lever possesses a tendency to overwrite, a danger that probably stems from his technique of rattling off a story in the manner of a raconteur.

Although Lever’s later novels are more strongly plotted and written with more control, this early, picaresque novel of the life and adventures of Tom Burke is considered one of his best. The very extravagance of the tale and the writing give the book its chief virtues. The novel’s greatness almost seems to arise from its defects. Although there are serious passages in the novel, such as a thoughtful discussion of the Irish attitude toward death, it is the humor of the book that most readers will remember. The original edition of TOM BURKE OF OURS was embellished with masterful humorous illustrations by Phiz, who already was illustrating the novels of Lever’s younger contemporary, Dickens. The style of caricature for which Phiz was famous was particularly suited to the flamboyant writing of Lever. TOM BURKE OF OURS and Lever’s other novels have been overshadowed by the more famous works of his great contemporaries, but they are worth reading and treasuring for their vitality and humor.