Title: Elster's Folly
Author and Title: Ellen Wood. Elster's Folly: A Novel
First Edition: London: Tinsley Brothers, 1866. 3 volumes, post 8vo, 31s 6d.
Summary: Percival Elster, who goes by Val, is the younger brother of Lord Hartledon. The Hartledon’s county seat is located in the fictional English village of Calne (pronounced “Cawn”). The novel opens by introducing the residents of Calne, with special attention given to the Gum family, whose ne’er-do-well son Willy recently perished on a voyage from Australia to England in which a mysterious man named George Gordon led a murderous mutiny and made off with all the money on board. The Ashtons are another important local family: the father is the rector, and his daughter, Anne Ashton, is verbally engaged to Val Elster. A mysterious transient figure who goes by Pike moves into an abandoned shed next door to the Gums. Arriving uninvited to the Hartledon estate is Lord Hartledon’s distant relative, the countess-dowager Lady Kirton, a selfish and scheming woman, and Maude Kirton, her equally selfish but beautiful daughter. Val Elster is known for having the distinct trait of being weak willed, giving into the desires of the people around him. This trait is referred to as “Elster’s Folly.” Val’s folly and lifestyle get him into a large amount of debt that he is unable to pay. Lady Kirton is determined to marry Maude to Lord Hartledon in order to secure an income for herself. While Val is visiting Lord Hartledon, a debt collector from London attempts to arrest him for his outstanding bills. For an unknown reason, Pike interferes and tricks the collector into thinking that Lord Hartledon is Val. The case of mistaken identity ends with the attempted arrest of Lord Hartledon, who clears up the matter by promising to pay for Val’s debts. However, in the process, Rector Ashton is made aware of Val’s debts and refuses to allow Anne and Val to marry. Hartledon and Val argue over the situation. The next day, Lord Hartledon proposes a boat race. On the way to the race he injures his arm; out of pride he chooses to race anyways. Unbeknownst to the rest of the party, Hartledon loses control of his boat and drowns. After the death is discovered, Val inherits the title Lord Hartledon. Pike begins to insinuate around town that he knows something nefarious about the boating accident. Lady Kirton uses Val’s folly to coerce a marriage between Val and Maude, despite their lack of interest in each other. Anne is crushed by the news of the marriage. After some months, an unknown man shows up and demands an audience with Val, after which Val acts as a changed man, like someone who has committed a great sin. He confides his secret in his old college chum, Thomas Carr. Carr investigates the situation, looking for a man named George Gordon. After several years of marriage and two children, Val and Maude grow to care for one another, though Maude is angered that Val refuses to tell her his secret. The unknown man returns to talk with Val, and Maude eavesdrops—what she hears shocks her and she retreats to bed with a weakness brought on by a lack of will to live. On a rare outing, Val’s son Edward is thrown from his horse and, though he is unhurt, Maude dies suddenly out of fear for her child’s safety. Val then marries Anne, and they have three children together. Lady Kirton continues to afflict the family with her presence and poisons the minds of Maude’s children against Anne’s children. Val allows this to happen because he refuses to punish or reprimand Maude’s children out of guilt. Pike becomes deathly ill and reveals to Val that he is actually Willy Gum. He has lived in disguise for years because he was the ringleader of the mutiny, which he had instigated under the false name George Gordon; he also believed incorrectly that Val had murdered his brother. Edward, Maude’s eldest child and the presumptive heir to the earlship, becomes sick with a fever and never fully recovers. Because of Lady Kirton’s influence and Val’s indulgence, he is a spoiled and mean child. He bullies Anne’s children in front of a dinner party and Val takes Edward’s side, devastating Anne. Edward dies, and Val confesses to Anne that he is happier now that his eldest son is dead. In a scheme to abstract money from Val, Lady Kirton reads his private letters and discovers Val’s secret, which forces Val to disclose it to Anne. When he was a young man on a trip to Scotland, two designing locals, George Gordon and Agnes Waterlow, get Val drunk one night and perform an impromptu wedding between Val and Agnes, which, under Scottish law, is valid. Agnes suffers from insanity, and Val has been quietly paying to have her kept in an asylum since the incident. The unknown man who periodically visited Val was the Scottish doctor at whose house the ceremony was performed. He had been providing Val with updates on his wife’s health status. Agnes died while Val was married to Maude, and they secretly remarried to validate Maude’s position, but the second marriage occurred after Edward’s birth, meaning he was never the true heir, which is what fueled Val’s guilt and subsequent indulgence. Val appeases Lady Kirton by providing her with a small income and lives a happy life now that he does not have a secret to hide. (SCT)
References: BL; EC
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