Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1122
Mr. and Mrs. Pontifex are middle-aged when their son George is born. When the time comes for George to learn a trade, they accept the offer of Mr. Pontifex’s brother-in-law to take George with him to London as an apprentice in his printing shop. George learns his trade well, and when the uncle dies he wills the shop to his nephew.
George marries, and five children are born to him and his wife: John, Theobald, Eliza, Maria, and Alethea, at whose birth Mrs. Pontifex dies. George considers himself a parent motivated only by the desire to do the right thing for his children. When Theobald proves himself not as quick as John but more persistent, George picks the clergy as Theobald’s profession. Shortly before his ordination, Theobald writes to his father that he does not wish to become a minister. In reply, George threatens to disinherit him. Theobald submits and is ordained. He then has to wait for an older member of the clergy to die so that he can be given a living.
The Allabys have three daughters, all of marriageable age. After selecting Theobald as a possible husband for one of the daughters, Mr. Allaby suggests to his daughters that they play a game of cards to decide who will become Theobald’s wife. Christina wins. Without knowing of this, Theobald obligingly courts Christina until he wins her promise to marry him. George writes to Theobald that he objects to his son’s marriage into the impoverished Allaby family, but Theobald is too deeply committed to release himself. Five years later, he obtains a decent living in a community called Battersby, where he and Christina settle. Because their first child is a son and the first new male Pontifex, George is pleased. For the first time in his life, Theobald feels that he has done something to satisfy his father. After Ernest comes Joseph and then Charlotte. Theobald and Christina rear their children with strict adherence to principles that they believe will mold fine character. The children are disciplined rigorously and beaten when their parents deem it appropriate. When George dies, he leaves 17,500 pounds to Theobald and 2,500 pounds to the oldest son, Ernest.
From the oppressive existence at home under the almost obsessive rule of his parents, Ernest is sent to Roughborough to be educated under Dr. Skinner, as strict a disciplinarian as Theobald. Ernest is physically weak and mentally morose. He might have succumbed completely to his overpowering environment had he not been rescued by an understanding and loving relative. Alethea Pontifex, Theobald’s sister, retired to London, where she lives comfortably on an inheritance that was wisely invested. Looking about for someone to whom she can leave her money when she dies, Alethea hits upon Ernest. Because she does not wish to bestow her fortune blindly, however, she determines to learn more about the boy. She moves to Roughborough so that she can spend time with him.
From the first, she endears herself to the lonely youngster. She encourages him to develop his own talents, and when she learns that he has a passion for music, she suggests that he learn how to build an organ. Enthusiastically, he sets about to learn wood construction and harmony. Theobald disapproves, but he does not forbid Ernest’s activities because he and Christina are eager that Ernest inherit Alethea’s money. Ernest’s shrinking personality changes under the benevolent influence of his aunt. When Alethea dies, she leaves her money in the hands of her best friend, Mr. Overton, whom she appoints to administer the estate that will go to Ernest on his twenty-eighth birthday.
After Ernest completes his course at Roughborough, Theobald sends him to Cambridge to study for the ministry. At Cambridge, Ernest makes a few friends and takes part in athletics. He is ordained soon after he receives his degree and then goes to London. Still innocent and unworldly, he entrusts the inheritance he receives from his grandfather to his friend Pryer, who cheats him out of it. Because he cannot differentiate between good and evil people, Ernest also becomes entangled in a charge of assault and battery and is sentenced to a term in the workhouse. Theobald sends word that henceforth Ernest is to consider himself an orphan.
Ernest is twenty-three years old at the time. Unknown to Ernest, Mr. Overton is still holding the estate Alethea left for him. Mr. Overton begins to take an interest in Ernest’s affairs. When Ernest is released from prison, he goes to Mr. Overton for advice concerning his future, since it is no longer possible for him to be a clergyman.
While Ernest was at Roughborough, Christina hired a young girl named Ellen as a maid. She and Ernest become good friends simply because Ellen is kinder to him than anyone else at home. When she becomes pregnant and Christina learns of her condition, she sends Ellen away. Fearing that the girl might starve, Ernest follows her and gives her all the money he has. Theobald learns about this from John, the coachman, whom Theobald thereupon dismisses.
Soon after his release from prison, Ernest meets Ellen again by chance in a London street. Because both are lonely, they marry and set up a secondhand shop selling clothing and books with the help of Mr. Overton, who deplores the idea of their marriage. Unknown to Ernest, Ellen is a habitual drunkard. Before long, she so impoverishes him with her drinking and her foul ways that he dislikes her intensely. He cannot leave her, however, because of the two children she bore him.
One day, Ernest again meets John, his father’s former coachman, who reveals that he is the father of Ellen’s illegitimate child and that he married Ellen shortly after she left Theobald’s home in disgrace. Acting on this information, Mr. Overton arranges matters for Ernest. Ellen is promised an income of a pound a week if she will leave Ernest, and she readily accepts the proposal. The children are sent to live in a family of happy, healthy children, for Ernest fears that his own upbringing will make him as bad a parent as Theobald was.
When Ernest reaches the age of twenty-eight, he inherits Alethea’s trust fund of seventy thousand pounds. By that time, Ernest is a writer. With a part of his inheritance, he travels abroad for a few years and then returns to England with material for a book he plans to write. He goes on to publish many successful books, but he never tells his own story. Mr. Overton, who has access to all the Pontifex papers and who knows Ernest well, writes the history of the Pontifex family.
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