Kenelm Chillingly is born the only son and heir of Sir Peter Chillingly. From birth, Kenelm was quiet, unemotional, aloof, and in general an odd duck. A tutor, Welby, is chosen to educated him in the “new ideas” of the current generation. As he grows, he proves to be given to study, but is thoroughly without ambition and thinks very little of the ambitions others hold — namely, marriage, career, and position. Later, at Oxford, his disdain for women is reinforced by Decimus Roach, a scholar devoted not only to the celibacy of the clergy, but the celibacy of everyone else.
Back at home, aimless as ever, Kenelm meets a man and his dog traveling the country-side and singing songs for spare change. The man is a bit too well-spoken to be a common beggar, but Kenelm doesn’t press the question, or even ask his name. From the verse-maker, he decides that he, too, should drop out of society and wander about on foot to find himself. They meet a few more times on the road, the verse-maker vainly trying to make Kenelm see the value of love, and Kenelm vainly trying to reason the verse-maker out of it.
Skipping forward a bit, his travels eventually lead him to a small village where a farmer girl loves a crippled basket maker, but cannot marry him for lack of money and fear of Tom Bowles. Bowles is a brutish farrier, infamous for his strength and temper, who has claimed the girl as his own. Kenelm, though slight of figure, is a skilled fighter himself and decides to call Bowles out. Defeated, Bowles promises to leave town, but Kenelm won’t let him go until the two make friends. Kenelm sets up Will (the basket maker) in a shop in the village and he and Jessie (the farmer girl) marry.
The village preacher is rather impressed by Kenelm and introduces him to the local squire, Leopold Travers, and his daughter, Cecilia. Cecilia falls in love with Kenelm almost at once. Kenelm rather likes her, but doesn’t imagine he could love anyone, and certainly not Cecilia. Their estate borders the ruins of an old castle. Kenelm learns that its owners, the Fletwodes, were terribly disgraced some years ago — embezzlement, arrest, suicide — and were now lost somewhere in obscurity.
Skipping forward quite a bit. Events have transpired, Bowles has reformed and come into some fortune, Will’s business has failed, Bowles anonymously buys him a new store in a more upscale town where his basketry will be in greater demand, Will and Jessie assume their benefactor is Kenelm.
Kenelm goes to see them and meets Lily. Lily is an orphan who lives modestly with her aunt, but her parents were evidently aristocrats. Her absent legal guardian is an artist — a man she calls Lion — who has only recently come into fashion and wealth. Kenelm soon realizes that his old notions of celibacy were all wrong and decides to ask Lily to marry him. Her aunt, Mrs. Cameron, is opposed to this, but won’t say why and remains rather cryptic about Lily’s origins or condition. It comes out that Mrs. Cameron is actually a Fletwode and has vowed to keep Lily ignorant of the family’s past and shield her from disgrace. Further, Lion — or Walter Melville — is the wandering verse-maker. Other than her aunt, he is the only one who knows who Lily is and, for his service to the family, has been promised her hand in marriage. Kenelm is dejected and flees to Italy. There, he meets Bowles once more and is reminded of how he got over his love for Jessie after he saw her happily married to Will. Kenelm returns to see the new Mrs. Melville, but finds that Lily died shortly after his departure. She left him a note, saying that she loved him and couldn’t bear to marry anyone else.
The ending was rushed — amazingly so, given Bulwer-Lytton’s usual pace and penchant for lingering on details. There was story enough to have easily gone on for another 800 pages. Kenelm Chillingly was published in 1873, the same year that the author died. The last few chapters, particularly, do not read like Bulwer-Lytton and I’m convinced they were written by someone else, but much of the last quarter of the book seems like a hastily finished sketch.