Hester (1883)

The Banking House of the Vernons has had a reputation for stability and strength for generations. Located in the small town of Redborough, the Bank has flourished under the guidance of John Vernon, who had a natural talent for successful banking. When his grandchild and namesake becomes the head of their family, great things are expected from him. He has long been thought as good as engaged to marry his cousin, Catherine Vernon, so that the family fortune remains in the bank. They have been close to each other since childhood, so great is the general astonishment when he marries a silly, pretty girl from a good family, and dives headfirst into a career of lavish expenditure and carelessness. However adventurous his attitude to money may seem, people trust Vernon's too much to suspect its solvency, and so very few know that he has long meddled with speculation, until he deserts his place at the bank and becomes a fugitive. His young wife, who has stayed behind believing her husband to be on a business trip, is unaware of the gravity of the situation and offers twenty pounds to the Bank's clerk, Mr Rule, when he rushes to find Mr Vernon. Thus deprived of any immediate, practical assistance, and in mortal dread of a coming run on the bank that might end in bankruptcy, Mr Rule suddenly remembers Catherine Vernon, who has long lived apart from the bank and lives the quiet life of a spinster.

Catherine Vernon decides to risk her independent fortune and lead the bank to safety. Thus a new era, even more prosperous than before, begins in the history of Vernon's. She becomes a local institution, both as the odd figure of the business woman and as the benefactress of many people, including those relatives whom people maliciously call her “pensioners”. She maintains lodgings for all these relatives in a family property, the Heronry (known jokingly as the Vernonry), which is near her own house, the Grange. Likewise late in her successful career, she takes under her wing two young Vernons, Harry and her favourite, Edward, to train them as her successors. Harry, however faithful and trustworthy, is not as intelligent and pleasant to Catherine as Edward, who becomes a sort of adopted son to the spinster. Catherine's attitude to most of her relatives is one of disillusioned kindness, as she knows they resent her gifts even as they accept them. Amongst these lodgers there are the two bickering Misses Vernon-Ridgways and malicious Mr Mildway, who never fail to both flatter and secretly disparage the head of the family. Despised by these people who feel they have a special right over Vernon property are kind old Captain Morgan and his wife, who are Catherine's relations on her mother's side, and therefore not Vernons. They are the only “pensioners” who are sincerely grateful to and feel warmly towards Catherine.

Many years after these events Catherine invites John Vernon's widow and daughter Hester (until now living in exile in France) to move into the Heronry. It will be painful to return in their humble position, but still they will be comfortable, and fourteen year old Hester is excited at the new prospect; so the invitation is accepted and both women move into Catherine Vernon's property. Good, silly Mrs Vernon has remained ignorant of the fact that her husband's wrongdoings were the reason behind Catherine's becoming head of the family and the bank; therefore bright Hester knows nothing of this either. Perhaps because of their similar characters, Hester and Catherine misinterpret each other from their first meeting. Thus their relationship turns into one of mutual dislike and mistrust resulting mainly from old prejudice and ignorance.

When the main story opens, Hester has turned nineteen without succeeding in either her wish to be allowed to earn her living as a teacher or in becoming friendlier with Catherine. The Morgans are her closest friends. She is also acquainted with Harry and Edward. They both feel attracted to Hester, though only the former has publicly shown signs of wishing to become closer, by always standing by her and her mother's side during social events. Edward, playing the role of a dutiful son for Catherine (though privately resenting the motherly love he misinterprets as her wish to control him), only approaches Hester when alone, given her unimportant social position and Catherine's aversion towards the young girl.

By this time Harry's sister has just become Mrs Algernon Merridew, and left her brother to live on his own in their big family house (the White House). Harry has proposed to Hester, but has been rejected in a very diplomatic way. He never imagines the reason is that Hester feels attracted to Edward, and he nevertheless carries on with his suit. A potential new suitor appears on the scene in the figure of the Morgans' charming grandson Roland Ashton, a broker on the Stock Exchange paying his grandparents a brief visit in Redborough. He tempts the three young gentlemen (Algernon Merridew, Harry Vernon, and Edward Vernon) with stories of fortunes made through speculation, and offers to become their agent for some small investments. Algernon and Harry are satisfied with such insignificant gambling, but duplicitous Edward, in his desperate wish to become independent from Catherine, soon secretly moves on to bigger risks and other agents not wholly as cautious as Roland, in spite of having been warned by the latter. No one knows how deep into speculation Edward goes, using the Bank's money, as he has none of his own.

Edward's career in speculation runs parallel to his flirting and committing himself with Hester unbeknownst to Catherine, during a series of young, informal parties Mrs Merridew throws. He hints at some risky business at hand which might endanger his position to the point of eventually needing to flee, but he never lets Hester know about his actions. These parties also introduce us to the mercenary character of penniless Emma Ashton, Roland's youngest sister, who deliberately uses every opportunity to advance her chances of obtaining a good marriage proposal.

One fatal day Edward asks Hester to meet him outdoors in the evening, after dark. He asks her to flee with him, but Hester soon becomes aware that he has done something to harm the Bank, and she urges him to stay and put it right. Edward is shocked to hear her stand up for Catherine and the Vernons, even after he discloses the truth about her father's culpability in that earlier crisis at the bank. Upon seeing Catherine approaching, Edward suddenly pushes off Hester and runs away toward the town. Catherine meanwhile had been eavesdropping on this conversation, expecting only to expose the clandestine lovers. She is shocked to learn of Edward's betrayal, and of his cold feelings towards herself.

Brokenhearted, the two women support each other over the next few days, as Catherine, with faithful Harry's assistance, strives to save the Bank, even at the cost of her own fortune. She sees the Bank to a safe port in the storm, stoically selling her house and valuables. They soon learn that Edward had had a lucky stroke after losing big sums of money to speculation, and had decided to run away with his gains and marry Hester before leaving for the Continent. Also as Edward was fleeing, he accidentally met Emma Ashton, the Morgans' youngest granddaughter, in the railway carriage to the city, and decided to use the marriage licence bought for Hester to propose to Emma, whom he then married on the following day.

Hester and Catherine become very close through these hard times and realise their old mutual enmity was but the result of the strong resemblance between them. Catherine tells Hester it is a pity that with her gifts she cannot go into Vernon's, where she would become “an excellent man of business”. Hester is eager to do this, but Catherine says it cannot be, seemingly implying that the world will tolerate an old woman in such a position, but not a young girl. Catherine tells her that the way to become active in the Bank would be to marry Harry Vernon; but Hester, still heartbroken, believes she will never marry.

Meanwhile there is not much Hester's or Harry's affection can do for Catherine. Though she appears as firm and self-controlled as always, Edward's betrayal has been too harsh a blow, and she dies during her very last evening in the old family house. Hester's life story remains open as the novel closes. She has not achieved independence through work, nor through a husband, though the narrator reminds us in the last lines that she still has two suitors for her hand, Roland Ashton and Harry Vernon.


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