Small image of a man handing a book to a women across a counter.

At the Circulating Library

A Database of Victorian Fiction, 1837–1901

A Database of Victorian Fiction, 1837–1901

Title: Philistia

Author and Title: Grant Allen. Philistia

First Edition: London: Chatto and Windus, 1884. 3 volumes, post 8vo, 31s 6d.

Serialization: Gentleman's Magazine, January 1884 to December 1884 (monthly)

Summary: The novel follows the three Le Breton brothers: the eldest Herbert is a selfish socialite; Ernest is a goodhearted, idealistic socialist; and the youngest Ronald is a kind and devout Christian who suffers from tuberculosis. Herbert and Ernest attend Oxford, where they befriend Harry Oswald and Arthur Berkeley. Oswald is a very skilled mathematician and the son of a Devonshire grocer. He becomes a Fellow with the University and has a bright future. Berkeley is a parson at Oxford, but his true passion is composing music. He is the son of a shoemaker, an embarrassing fact he keeps hidden from his friends. Oswald bring his sister, Edith, who goes by Edie, to visit Oxford, and both Ernest and Berkeley fall in love with her. Ernest is an active member of the socialist groups in London, the leader of whom is a German refugee named Max Schurz. Schurz’s radical and outspoken politics make him a social pariah, though he is really kind hearted and practical. Ernest fails to find employment at Oxford and is pushed by his mother Lady Le Breton to become a tutor for Lord Exmoor’s son, but Ernest’s uncompromising socialist ideals clash with the conservative peer’s world view. Schurz encourages Ernest to take the position by reminding him that even socialists need to earn a living. Ernest visits Oswald in Devonshire in order to spend more time with Edie. Lord Exmoor’s daughter Hilda Tredellis, a down-to-earth and good-natured girl, becomes enamored of Ernest’s genuine spirit and frankness, and she greatly desires to marry him or someone similar to him, despite their class differences. Herbert, under the false name Herbert Walters, has been courting a poor girl named Selah Briggs from a nearby village for several years. As Herbert gets further into high society, he decides to break off his relationship with Selah, despite his feelings for her, to make room for a socially advantageous marriage. To solidify his breakup with Selah, Herbert leaves suddenly and quietly with Oswald to climb mountains in Switzerland. In a terrible accident, Oswald and several of the local guides plumet to their death. Herbert feels very little remorse and is more upset that he is unable to reach the summit than he is about his friend’s death. Ernest visits Edie to comfort her and her family, and they get engaged. Lady Le Breton fundamentally disapproves of the marriage because of Edie’s working-class background and severs ties with Ernest. In order to support Edie, Ernest takes a position as a school teacher at a grammar school. The head master Dr. Greatrex accepts Ernest because of Ernest’s connections, through Lady Le Breton, to the aristocracy. Ernest, however, falls short of Dr. Greatrex’s expectations by sticking to his radical socialist principles. Things come to a head when Max Schurz is seen visiting Ernest at the school, which results in Ernest’s termination. Meanwhile, Berkeley gives up his position in the Church to pursue playwriting fulltime in London and to be closer to his aging father. His first play, which is both humorous and smart, is an overnight sensation, and Berkeley becomes the most popular playwright in London. Selah grows tired of waiting for Herbert to contact her, so she seeks him out in London in person. He is very rude to her and ends their relationship for good. Ernest and Edie have a daughter, but Ernest is also diagnosed with tuberculosis. Their small family is forced to move into lowly lodgings in London, but they are fortunate enough to fall in with wonderfully kind and generous landlords who go out of their way to make the family’s stay comfortable. Berkeley assists Ernest by finding him a position as a journalist with a leading newspaper. Ernest would rather be doing something to help the socialist cause, but he understands his responsibility to feed his family, so he takes the position. Max Schurz is put on trial for a false rumor that he has been encouraging an attack on the Russian aristocracy and is convicted to one year of hard labor. Because of his connection to Schurz, Ernest is asked to write an article on the trial and verdict. He writes an impassioned piece defending Schurz and the socialist cause, but the editor, without consulting Ernest, alters the language to be a condemnation of Schurz. Ernest is crushed by this and refuses to accept payment for the article, even though he and his family are on the verge of starvation. Ronald, seemingly compelled by the Spirit, meets Selah down by a river and convinces her not to drown herself. He brings her back to his mother’s house where they run into Herbert. Herbert’s underhanded treatment of Selah is revealed, but Lady Le Breton sides with Herbert and kicks Ronald out. Over time, Ronald and Selah fall in love and marry. Ernest is asked to write another article on an Indian tribe that Ernest’s father, during his military service, had helped conquer. Ernest again writes a detailed and impassioned article condemning British imperialism in India, which the editor again reverses to be in support of the British’s actions. Ernest is again crushed, feeling that he is now personally responsible for the continued mistreatment of the Indian tribe. But this time he takes the money to pay for his daughter’s much-needed medicine. Living on the edge of starvation and feeling the weight of his responsibility to his has made his consumption worse. Out of sympathy for Ernest and a newfound love for Berkeley, Hilda Tredellis uses her social influence to get Ernest a contract to write a book about poverty in London’s East End. Hilda and Berkeley bond over their mutual desire to help Ernest and his family and get married. Ernest’s book London’s Shame is a huge success and lands him an editorship of his own socialist journal, a position in which he flourishes. (SCT)

Title Tags:

References: Bodleian; BL; EC