Phoebe Junior (1876)

Intelligent and resourceful Phoebe Junior is the daughter of a Dissenting clergyman taking charge of the prosperous Crescent Chapel in London. Its leading member, Mr Copperhead, is a self-made millionaire engineer with hardly any manners and even less sensitivity who constantly bullies his second wife, his former governess. Altogether from a different social class from him, she has given him a son, Clarence Copperhead, the pride of his father who longs for him to be a son worthy of the nobility - a beautiful “china doll” suited for Parliament. Clarence, however, is by no means the brilliant young man his father longs for him to be, but is rather a somewhat dull, easygoing character, who is soon dispatched from Oxford to a private tutor in Carlingford in the hope he will eventually be readyto complete his degree. He thus becomes part of Mr May’s household, the Anglican minister of St Roque’s in Carlingford (already known as the former incumbency of Frank Wentworth in several of the previous Carlingford novels), a struggling widower with a large family supervised by his elder daughter, Ursula. As the novel begins, Mr May has as unpaid curate, his elder son, Reginald, whose principles make him reluctant to accept a sinecure as chaplain in an institution for elderly Churchmen. He is finally persuaded to accept it by his needy family, arguing he would be earning his apparently easy salary by doing charity work on the side of his few duties as chaplain.

Always hardly pressed for money, Mr May has secretly contracted a bill for one hundred pounds, nominally backed by a poor tradesman in his congregation, which he renovates every six months against payment of the previous one. As one of these terms comes to a close a new circle of young visitors begins to assemble at Mr May’s. Ursula met and greatly admired Phoebe Beecham in London. On knowing that the girl is staying in Carlingford, while dutifully nursing her invalid grandmother (none other than Mrs Tozer, whom we already met in Salem Chapel, as the successful butterman’s wife, now comfortably retired), she decides to befriend her, in spite of the differences in their social class and religion. Phoebe is a Dissenter, Ursula an Anglican, both are clergymen’s daughters. Furthermore, however carefully educated, well mannered and clad Miss Beecham is, she is, to her own acknowledged shame, but a tradesman’s granddaughter. The appearance of Copperhead and his Dissenter minister friend, wealthy Mr Northcote, smoothes down the differences between them, and makes the three welcome visitors to Mr May’s. Mr Northcote is temporarily substituting the local Dissenting minister - he severely criticised Reginald May on arriving to Carlingford, but close acquaintance with the hard-working, honourable Anglican and his own falling in love with Ursula, make him eventually change his mind. It is through these meetings that a letter from Mr Tozer falls into Mr May’s hand, and he forges the former’s signature on the new bill, confident Phoebe’s grandfather need never know if he pays the next bill on time.

As the next six months progress we witness how Mr Northcote successfully courts Ursula, how Phoebe strengthens her grasp over the malleable Copperhead whilst becoming aware that Reginald May has also fallen in love with her. Though rather more romantically inclined towards Reginald, Phoebe chooses Copperhead, because she has known him all her life, and because she could make him and his ascent into Parliament into her own career. Meanwhile, Mr May’s time has come to a close and a mistake in taking dates down results in Mr Tozer finding out about the forgery and becoming thirsty for justice. It will fall upon Phoebe, grateful towards the Mays, and dreadfully sorry for the Anglican, to save him from her grandfather’s wrath and public shame. A vision of the imposing Mr May reduced to madness by guilt and shame finally settles the matter for Mr Tozer, who in pity accepts a private clearance of the debt by Mr Northcote (now Ursula May’s betrothed, and soon to be her husband).

These tragic events coincide chronologically with a little struggle between Clarence Copperhead and his father, settled when Mr Copperhead acknowledges that “humble” Phoebe is nevertheless a good match for his son because:

“Money is money […] but brains is brains, all the same – we can’t get on without ‘em – and when you want to make a figure in the world, sir, buy a few brains if they fall in your way – that’s my style.”

His trust proves to be deserved when, by the end of the novel, we find that Phoebe’s skilful social manoeuvring and carefully crafted speeches, though both unacknowledged, have successfully led dull Clarence Copperhead into Parliament:

And Clarence got into Parliament, and the reader, perhaps (if Parliament is sitting), may have had the luck to read a speech in the morning paper of Phoebe’s composition, and if he ever got the secret of her style would know it again, and might trace the course of a public character for years to come by that means. But this is a secret which no bribe nor worldly inducement will ever tempt our lips to betray.