The Caxtons are an ancient family. Austin, ever the bookworm, prefers to trace the lineage to William Caxton, an obscure 15th century printer. Roland, his more martial and romantically inclined brother, favors the somewhat apocryphal 12th century warrior Sir Adam de Caxton. Regardless, the Caxtons of the present day are not a very prominent or important bunch. In their youth, both Austin and Roland fell in love with the same woman, Ellinor Compton. But Ellinor, already an heiress to enormous wealth, also had ambition. She rather did love Austin, but it was plain that he was too content with his books and hadn’t the drive to attain any great station. She played something of a coquette to Roland, but never seriously considered him. The military offers few avenues for the sort of advancement she desired, and Roland, with his head filled with chivalrous romances like a modern-day Quixote, lived in a fairy tale and scarce saw the real world at all. Instead, she married Trevanion, a man with great promise, sure to make a name for himself in the political sphere.
After their disappointment, the Caxton brothers both accidentally fall into marriages of their own. When Austin’s tutor died, his daughter Kitty somehow became Austin’s ward, and later, somehow became his wife. He’s not exactly sure of the details. Roland, on a campaign in Spain, came in contact with a Spanish widow whose fortune had been ruined by the war. Roland’s “knightly compassion” compelled him to marry her.
Austin and Kitty have a son, Pisistratus. Austin delights in the boy’s education, but would not have him be the perpetual scholar he is. Though little acquainted with it himself, he’s aware that there’s a world outside the library and that Sisty must know it. On the whole, their little family is happy. On the other hand, Roland and Ramouna are plagued with strife. Roland’s romantic notions of honor don’t gel with Ramouna’s fiery, lawless ways. She impresses her low opinion of the English on their first born, Herbert, and quite effectively estranges him from his father. She dies shortly after the birth of their second child, Blanche, who Roland takes back to England.
Kitty’s brother Jack is an idea man. He has no end of money-making schemes, but unfortunately, they don’t seem to ever make him money, and even worse, they usually cost his investors dearly. All of Jack’s attempts to lure in Austin fail until he strikes upon publishing. With the promise that his magnum opus, The History of Human Error, will see release, Austin agrees to fund Jack’s latest scheme. After paying off all their debtors and bailing Jack out of jail, Austin’s already meager income is severely impaired and Austin is forced to move-in with Roland.
But during the time of Jack’s folly, Pisistratus had been in London and made the acquaintance of a number of personages. The first is Trevanion, who has indeed made his way in Parliament, and his wife Ellinor (it must be said here that Sisty is yet unaware of this particular bit of family history). He also meets their daughter Fanny and is smitten by her. And then he chances upon Francis Vivian. Vivian is quite loquacious on some topics, but on others — particularly those regarding his relations — he remains cagey. He’s a dissolute young man who lives by gambling and is at the moment without funds. Pisistratus has by now become Trevanion’s secretary, and as Vivian speaks English and Spanish indifferently, he secures his friend’s employment in the capacity of a translator.
Sisty finds that he’s grown to love Fanny, which simply won’t do. Ellinor’s ambition has by no means been sated and Fanny’s marriage will be arranged for advancement, not for love. And so Sisty quits Trevanion. This clears the way for Vivian, who’s less scrupulous in such matters. He abducts her and plans to force a Scottish marriage, but is thwarted by the combined efforts of Pisistratus (who still hasn’t quite figured out who Vivian really is), Roland (who most definitely has), and the Marquis of Castleton (who I haven’t mentioned at all, which is a shame since his subplot is delightful, but this synopsis is already much too long). Vivian, or Herbert if you like, is at last made aware of how flawed his impression of his father is and understands (somewhat) that (perhaps) his actions were (slightly) ignoble.
Sisty, hoping to restore the family fortune (since ruined by Jack), prepares to leave for Australia to work a sheep station, and Vivian accompanies him (to the relief of his father, who fears he’d backslide if he stayed another day in England). They both meet with great success. Sisty more than repays his father’s debts and Vivian feels redeemed enough to resume his former name. But the Australian bush is not for Herbert. Following his father’s footsteps, he joins the army and leaves to fight in India. He serves bravely — perhaps overly so. The Captain is killed on the field. But there’s always a silver lining: Roland was proud of his prodigal son, surely, but he did complicate matters, as Roland had already made Sisty his heir and scion of the imaginary House de Caxton. Herbert clouded the succession.
In the end, Sisty marries Blanche, they have two daughters and a little Herbert, and everyone lives happily ever after.
Inscription: from the same set donated by John Manch to the Manch College of Music in 1926 that nearly all my Bulwer-Lytton books are from.