Old Mr Tredgold (1896)

Mr Tredgold, a retired businessman, lives a millionaire’s life in the Isle of Wight with his two daughters. The younger, Stella, a selfish, shallow but bright young lady, always takes precedence over her sister, Katherine. Stella is not only her father’s favourite, but also everyone else’s, even her sister’s (who is, however, painfully conscious of the differences between them), and has grown up a spoiled beauty who is used to get everything she might desire on the spot. Things change when she engages the penniless officer Sir Charles Somers, a hedonistic, light-headed young person just like herself. Mr Tredgold, obsessed with money, opposes the match point blank, while arguing that his daughter is an “expensive article”, and the man who marries her will have to keep her in such a fashion. In consequence, he refuses to give “my daughter to any man as can’t count down upon the table shillin’ for shillin’ with me.”

Believing the old man will relent towards his cherished favourite, and following the advice of the local female authority, the formidable Lady Jane, Stella and Sir Charles elope and settle, temporarily (or so they believe), in India. Mr Tredgold, feeling swindled by the daughter who has fled with the costly gifts he gave her after she consented giving up her fiancée, can only curse and disown her (though he declares she is “a chip of the old block” with paradoxical pride).

However loyal Katherine might remain to himself and her sister, her father doesn’t promote her in his affections. Nonetheless, she is henceforth seen as heiress to the Tredgold fortune, and is wooed by several men, some attracted by her, some by the riches she will inherit. Some of these men are the sons of her father’s fellow businessmen, whose proposals her father tries to advance, approving as he does of their financial wealth. She is also proposed to, mainly for non-financial reasons, by the local doctor, and by the Rector, Mr Stanley.A man in his late forties and father to children her own age, the handsome clergyman feels mortally offended when she declines his proposals after reminding him of his age and position towards herself.

Dr. Burnet, in contrast, slowly and patiently works his way towards her through her unwitting father, who demands his services rather frequently because of his failing health, providing the doctor with an excuse to visit his home and his daughter regularly. Other factors furthering Burnet’s cause (locally promoted by Lady Jane herself and the gentle, middle class spinster, Miss Mildmay are that he has become the companion of many of her lonely hours, and that he would be disposed, should he become her husband, to share Katherine’s inheritance with her sister. Though certainly not in love with him, Katherine perceives the advantages of the match and, also being aware of the expectations which others have for them, considers accepting his proposals some time before he actually makes them. She is prevented from doing so by a fortuitous by an encounter with a former suitor, James Stanford, the first man ever to propose marriage to any of the Tredgold girls, and one of the few people to prefer Katherine over popular Stella. The fact that he did, took Katherine’s fancy, and she has thought of him often after he left for India, after having been dismissed by Mr Tredgold. Nothing comes out of the encounter as he is going back to India, but Katherine feels strongly attracted to the man and realizes she cannot marry Dr Burnet, and rejects him when he proposes shortly after.

Seven years elapse, and Katherine has remained with her father, living as frugally as possible so that she can send money to Stella in India, who, in her pecuniary need, actually accuses her sister of turning their father against her so that she can become his sole heir. When Mr Tredgold dies Katherine takes consolation in the thought that she will finally have her sister back and that she will be the one to restore her to the wealthy life she was brought up for. Surprisingly, Mr Tredgold’s will is dated thirteen years back, long before Stella had eloped. In a last act of favouritism, he has left all his fortune to his younger daughter, and left Katherine with just a morsel of land to build a spinster’s cottage in. She had some money left by her mother, but most of it went to Stella in her Indian exile. Stella does not even consider any sort of restoration or compensation, and promptly sells or removes the most valuable items in the house. Stella is not resentful, as she knows she would never have accepted any help in any case.

She has a last chance to live in comfort by marrying either Dr Burnet, who renews his proposal right after Mr Tredgold, or James Stanford, who has just returned a widower with a child from India, to Katherine’s disappointment. She marries neither, and settles in a little house in the country, and contentedly declares that “to be a disinherited person and to have no grievance […] is very hard”. Following such an open ending, the narrator adds:

It is a great art to know when to stop when you are telling a story – the question of a happy or a not happy ending rests so much on that. It is supposed to be the superior way nowadays that a story should end badly – first, as being less complete (I suppose), and second, as being more accord with truth. The latter I doubt. If there was ever any ending in human life except the final one of all (which we hope is exactly the reverse of an ending), one would be tempted rather to say that there are not so many tours de force in fiction as there are in actual life, and that the very commonest thing in the god who gets out of the machine to help the actual people round us to have their own way. But this is not enough for the highest class of fiction, and I am aware that the hankering after a good end is a vulgar thing. Now, the good ending of a novel means generally that the hero and heroine should get married and sent off with blessings upon their wedding tour. What can I say? I can but leave the question to time and the insight of the reader. If it is a fine thing for a young lady to be married, it must be a finer thing still that she should have, as people say, two strings to her bow. There are two men within her reach who would gladly marry Katherine, ready to take up the handkerchief should she drop it in the most maidenly way. She had no need to go out into the world to look for them. There they are – two honest, faithful men. If Katherine marries the doctor, James Stanford will disappear (he has a year’s furlough), and he no doubt in India will marry again and be more or less happy. If she should marry Stanford, Dr Burnet will feel it, but it will not break his heart. And then the two who make up their minds to this step will live happy – more or less – ever after. What is there to be said?

Inconclusive as this quote is, even vaguer is the ending paragraph, closing the story with a question amongst questions – pointing at the limitations constraining the nineteenth century bourgeois woman:

The piece of land which Mr. Sturgeon [her father’s solicitor] sold for her brought in a pleasant addition to her income, and she would have liked to have gone abroad and to have done many things; but what can be done, after all, by a lady and her maid, even upon five hundred pounds a year?