Precaution: A Novel (1820)

Warren S. Walker (Texas Tech University)

Originally published in Warren S. Walker, Plots and Characters in the Fiction of James Fenimore Cooper (Hamden, CT: Archon Books, 1978), pp. 170-179.

Copyright © 1978 by Warren S. Walker.  Placed online with the kind permission of Warren S. Walker, and of Shoe String Press, Inc.

[May be reproduced for instructional use by individuals or institutions; commercial use prohibited.]

Chapter numbers [in square brackets] have been inserted by the webmaster at approximately the point where each chapter begins, to facilitate locating particular plot incidents in the text.

— Hugh C. MacDougall

The entire focus of this novel rests on the determined though sometimes woefully mistaken efforts of three British families — the Moseleys, the Jarvises, and the Chattertons — to arrange suitable marriages for their respective sons and daughters. The bulk of the early-nineteenth-century action is therefore played out through dinners, social calls, visits to summer resorts, and development of various designs employed toward the end of matrimony. The “precaution” displayed by Mrs. Wilson in guiding her niece Emily Moseley through the treacherous shoals toward a sound Christian marriage furnishes the novel’s title and indicates the author’s moral and ethical position.

[1] Initially, a spirited and good-humored discussion of the Jarvises, soon to occupy the neighboring Deanery, animates the dinner party hosted by Sir Edward Moseley and Lady Anne, a party including the couple’s son John, their three marriageable daughters — Clara, Jane, and Emily — Sir Edward’s widowed resident sister Mrs. Wilson (by agreement the spiritual and social mentor of Emily), the parish rector Rev. Dr. Ives and his wife and their son Francis, and Mr. and Mrs. Haughton and their daughter Lucy. Clara’s future has already been determined: she is to wed Francis as soon as the young man has been assigned a parish. Thanks Sir Edward’s timely retrenchment and rebuilding of his financial status, and to the good will of friends and relatives intending to make the Moseley children their heirs, marriages of the proper kind seem likely for the younger two daughters and for John, as well.

[2-3] A slight accident at the gate of the Deanery, with minor injury to a Colonel Egerton, provides occasion for Rev. Dr. Ives’s immediate visit to the Jarvises. [3-4] His report on the new family prompts the Moseleys’ call shortly thereafter; a call revealing that the Jarvis parents — the husband is a retired prosperous merchant — are pleasant enough, and that their daughters are pretty but somewhat lacking in polish. Colonel Egerton’s lie, told to protect the Jarvises’ absent son Harry, arouses Mrs. Wilson’s doubts about the Colonel’s strength of character, a point that fails to dampen the romantic interest Jane feels in the dashing gentleman; the eligibility of Harry is clouded by his quite evident hunting out of season, but his family’s prosperity promises to outweigh that defect. A visit from a family favorite, Uncle Roderic Benfield — a wealthy eighty-year-old bachelor who delights in Emily — brightens the following days for the Moseleys.

[5] During a subsequent dinner at the rectory attended by the Moseleys, the Jarvises, and Colonel Egerton, the Jarvises display their lack of refinement and the Colonel his want of principle, points noted by Mrs. Wilson for Emily’s benefit. A curious interruption occurs after dinner: the arrival of a debilitated sixty-year-old man and his handsome twenty-five-year-old son, producing shock and grief among the Iveses and an early end to the conversation. Mrs. Jarvis’s fruitless and ill-bred attempts to secure fuller information about the unidentified visitors, as well as the death of the elderly visitor during Francis’s first sermon, increase suspense concerning the visitors, suspense given little relief by the newspaper notice merely naming the deceased “George Denbigh, Esq.”

[6] Interest in Colonel Egerton continues to draw Jane and Mrs. Moseley to the Jarvises’, despite the latter family’s obvious coarseness. [7] At the same time, Clara’s long-awaited marriage to Francis is made possible by the young rector’s being offered the fine living at Bolton, adjacent to his father’s parish; at the wedding, Colonel Egerton serves as groomsman in the absence of the Moseleys’ handsome cousin Lord Chatterton. Mrs. Wilson, increasingly concerned about Jane’s infatuation with the unprincipled Egerton, is unable to persuade Lady Moseley of the danger therein; Lady Anne is disposed to overlook the Colonel’s obvious flaws in favor of his probable inheritance of a title and substantial income.

[8] Shortly after the Ives wedding, Lady Chatterton and her son and two daughters arrive at the Moseleys’ for a visit. Lord Chatterton stirs strong interest among all the marriageable girls, and Lady Chatterton herself sees in John Moseley a likely match for one of her daughters. Young George Denbigh, a guest of the Rev. Dr. Ives and his wife, also catches her attention, as he does indeed of both the other matchmaking mothers; his charms are not lost on Emily, who, under Mrs. Wilson’s guidance, is prudent enough not to reveal her interest. Lady Chatterton’s bait, first for John Moseley and next for Colonel Egerton, is her daughter Catherine’s display of a shapely ankle, a bait to which neither man is drawn.

[9-10] A visit of all the neighbors to Clara Ives in her new home offers John Moseley the opportunity to drive Grace Chatterton to the Bolton rectory; his favorable response to Grace’s charms is cooled by Lady Chatterton’s effort to push the match. Colonel Egerton and George Denbigh, also of the party at the rectory, appear discomfited by one another’s presence, a fact marked only by Mrs. Wilson.

[11-12] A fortnight later, the Haughtons give a ball for Lucy to which the Moseleys, the Jarvises, the Chattertons, their various guests, and a number of young military officers are invited. George Denbigh’s immediate request that Emily give him the first dance, assented to by Emily, prompts an inquiry by Mrs. Wilson of Rev. Dr. Ives concerning the young man’s character, but the rector’s sound recommendation of Denbigh relieves Emily’s mentor’s anxiety. Both Emily and Mrs. Wilson are increasingly disturbed, however, about Jane’s evident attachment to the artful Egerton, since each discerns his lack of principle.

[13] At the Moseleys’ dinner the evening following the ball, honoring the officers of the regiment stationed nearby (an event Denbigh declines to attend), Mrs. Wilson inquires of her respected friend Sir Herbert Nicholson concerning Denbigh’s character and is further reassured about the young man’s soundness. Lord Chatterton, after the guests leave, relates the refusal of Denbigh to duel with Captain Harry Jarvis over Emily’s declining to dance the first dance with Jarvis and then accepting Denbigh’s invitation to dance. All present are horrified at Jarvis’s conduct and reconfirmed in their respect for Denbigh’s character. Sir Edward Moseley’s cautionary and offended conversation the following day with Mrs. Jarvis concerning the matter of the duel elicits an apology by Captain Jarvis (to avoid the threatened loss of six months’ allowance!). Young Jarvis had that morning killed Captain Digby in a duel fought to avenge Digby’s scornful toast to Jarvis at mess.

[14] Lord Chatterton, hopelessly in love with Emily but heretofore without financial means, proposes to her on the strength of his appointment to a lucrative post in the patent office. Gently but firmly refused by Emily, he retires to weep, at which business he is encountered by the compassionate Denbigh, himself an undeclared suitor for Emily’s hand. The two young men go together to London for a brief period, with Denbigh laying aside his interest in Emily out of respect for Chatterton.

[15] Lady Chatterton, seeking more promising matrimonial prospects for Catherine yet unwilling to relinquish her hope of matching Grace with John Moseley, leaves Grace pointedly with Emily and goes with Catherine for a long-delayed visit some fifty miles distant. The embarrassed Grace and Emily, at Grace’s suggestion, spend two weeks with Clara at the Bolton rectory. John, on the pretense of visiting Clara, goes to the rectory and takes Emily and Grace for an airing. Their way blocked by Denbigh’s gig, they inquire into the circumstances: Denbigh has stopped to render aid to an impoverished family. John impulsively gives the family several guineas, in marked contrast to Denbigh’s half-crown offering, a difference that troubles Emily. John’s reckless driving prompts Denbigh to offer Emily a ride back to the rectory, leaving Grace to accompany John; en route, Denbigh gives Emily a sealed letter from Lord Chatterton urging her to place her affections with Denbigh (Denbigh is clearly unaware of the letter’s contents). [16] The following morning, Mrs. Wilson, Grace, and Emily, intent on visiting the stricken family at their temporary lodging, on arrival overhear Denbigh counsel the man to abandon liquor and attend to his family; Denbigh furnishes two letters to aid the family in resituating itself, an act of greater charity by far, Mrs. Wilson tells Emily, than the guineas bestowed by John the day before.

Just as John, under the influence of Denbigh’s reading aloud of a moving poem on wedded love, is ready to state his affection for Grace, Lady Chatterton and Catherine return. [17] Matrimonial prospects for the latter have failed to materialize; but Lady Chatterton, assuming that John has already declared his suit to Grace, displays her heavy-handed management and provokes John into disavowing any matrimonial intentions and promptly thereafter accompanying his uncle, Mr. Benfield, to the latter’s home. Her hopes for both Grace and Catherine thus disappointed, Lady Chatterton takes her daughters home to London. As for Colonel Egerton, he promises to visit the Moseleys at the unfashionable resort near Benfield Lodge during their projected stay there.

[18-19] Shortly after this, a presumably unloaded gun (loaded by the impulsive Captain Jarvis) playfully aimed by John at Emily in the Moseley arbor is discharged; Denbigh, seeing the danger and therefore placing himself between Emily and the gun, receives the shot himself. During his ensuing delirium, Denbigh repeatedly mentions Emily’s name, but also repeats “poor deserted Marian” (p. 187), a reference puzzling to Emily, who devotedly attends him during his recovery, a period requiring a full month to complete.

[20] The Earl of Bolton, on a visit to the Moseleys one day, reveals that the Earl of Pendennyss himself had urged the post of rector for Francis Ives to show his respect for Mrs. Wilson. (Mrs. Wilson’s husband, spiritual mentor of Pendennyss during their military service, had extolled the Earl in his letters to his wife, and Mrs. Wilson, convinced of Pendennyss’ integrity, welcomes every additional evidence of her paragon’s virtue.) On the information that the Earl of Pendennyss will be visiting Bolton Castle soon, the Moseleys delay their holiday departure for Benfield Lodge as long as possible, to allow them the pleasure of meeting the Earl, but they receive his invitation hours too late to have the honor of his visit at Moseley Hall. The Moseleys, as well as most of their neighbors, depart for various summer resorts.

[21] En route to Benfield Lodge, the Moseleys stop overnight at Moseley Arms, an inn managed by a former butler in the Moseley household, and learn that it has been recently patronized — by virtue of a display of the Moseley family arms — not only by the Duke of Derwent and Lord Chatterton, but by the Earl of Pendennyss himself, a matter of gratification to the entire family. [22] Warmly greeted by Uncle Roderic Benfield, they find various modes of entertainment, including a visit to the public library, where John, Emily, and Jane encounter the elderly Spanish companion of a lovely young lady whom Emily and John had once helped and in whom John feels a romantic interest. [23] Mrs. Wilson and Emily agree to visit the young lady — a Mrs. Julia Fitzgerald — at her cottage the following morning. On that occasion, John is left behind to entertain Denbigh, a welcome but unexpected guest at Benfield Lodge, and Jane remains to await the promised arrival of Colonel Egerton.

The lovely Spaniard proves a gracious hostess and agrees to accept John as a visitor, but no others — she allows only one other gentleman in England (unidentified) to visit her, and he himself has come but once. Clearly, the lady has had an unhappy past, one unrevealed on this first visit. [24] After a number of calls, Mrs. Wilson and Emily one day find Mrs. Fitzgerald in tears, the recipient of a distressing letter from none other than Lord Pendennyss, to whom she claims she owes everything — “honor — comfort — religion — and even life itself” (p. 233). Too upset to talk further that day, she promises to reveal her life story the following day on their visit to her.

[25] Meanwhile, Colonel Egerton, taking advantage of the flurry occasioned by the unexpected arrival at the summer resort of Mr. and Mrs. Jarvis and their daughters, goes walking with Jane and proposes to her; the flattered, flustered girl refers him to her parents but confesses her love for him. Her parents are not surprised at Egerton’s declaration but express the need to inquire further into his background before giving their consent. To Mrs. Wilson’s surprise and concern, Mary Jarvis displays rudeness toward both Egerton and Jane, behavior that only Mrs. Wilson thinks to attribute either to jealousy or to some shortcoming in the Colonel himself. During the conversation, Emily mentions hearing further good word about Lord Pendennyss, an animated remark that, Mrs. Wilson notes, appears to make Denbigh uneasy and unwilling to hear more. Can the feeling prompting his reaction be envy? Mrs. Wilson is troubled at this evidence of a flaw in the young man’s character. Invitations to a ball given for the resort residents and the officers of the frigates anchored nearby necessitate postponement of the visit to Mrs. Fitzgerald; Denbigh declines to attend, but the rest spend a pleasant evening, with Lord Henry Stapleton attentive to Emily, commendatory of Lord Pendennyss, and barely polite to Colonel Egerton. A conversation overheard by Mrs. Wilson concerning Colonel Egerton confirms her worst suspicions: the dissoluteness — a matter of public knowledge — of the suitor for Jane’s hand. While Sir Edward is still pondering this bit of scandal, confided to him by Mrs. Wilson but vehemently denied by Colonel Egerton, it becomes apparent that Egerton has eloped with Mary (Polly) Egerton, unexpectedly recipient of a substantial inheritance. Jane, whose affections and pride are deeply wounded by this betrayal, can be comforted only by Emily; Jane’s unhappy state serves to underline for Emily the need for precaution in determining the character of one’s lover before placing one’s affections.

[26] The long-delayed visit to Mrs. Fitzgerald reveals that the young widow, the daughter and granddaughter of Protestant women married to committed Catholics, after a two-year confinement in a convent by her irate father in an attempt to break her will on the matter, had wed a Major Fitzgerald and was, after the battlefield death of her husband, placed in the care of a British officer for safe delivery to Fitzgerald’s mother in England. En route, the officer had attempted to seduce her; she was rescued from this threatened indignity by the Earl of Pendennyss, who had thereafter provided for her welfare. The letter from the Earl that grieved her had reported that her father was still adamant in his rejection of her Protestant faith. [27] A subsequent visit by Mrs. Wilson acquaints her with the fact that the proposed abuser of Mrs. Fitzgerald had entered her cottage on the day of the ball; from her maid’s report, Mrs. Fitzgerald concludes that the abuser must have been Colonel Egerton. In any event, he had left his pocketbook behind in his hasty exit and Mrs. Wilson agrees to return it to its owner at her earliest opportunity. On the way home, she examines the pocketbook and finds, to her shock and horror, that it belongs instead to George Denbigh. She recalls, then, the oddities in Denbigh’s behavior that she has earlier noted, and she determines to return the pocketbook to him publicly in order to observe his reaction. He is indeed shocked to receive it, and even more that Mrs. Wilson is the agent of its return. [28] His response confirms Mrs. Wilson’s suspicions, and she resolves to protect Emily from the attentions of this reprehensible man.

Emily, deeply shocked by the revelation, refuses Denbigh’s offer of his hand, whereupon Denbigh leaves, a development startling to all but Emily and Mrs. Wilson, who do not tell what they have found of his presumed character. [29] Both John Moseley and Peter Johnson go to London (the latter at Uncle Roderic Benfield’s direction) to implore Denbigh’s return. In the same carriage, en route to the city, are a foreign general and Lord Henry Stapleton, both also — as it later proves — seeking Denbigh. They meet again at Denbigh’s hotel in London. Denbigh declines the invitation to return to Benfield Lodge and leaves his quarters without notice. John, disconsolate, encounters Lord Chatterton, who takes him to see Grace and to meet Catherine’s prospective husband, an aging, dissolute bachelor, Lord Herriefield; both John and Grace are horrified at the match.

[30] On a visit to Mrs. Fitzgerald, Mrs. Wilson and Emily meet the foreign general John had seen in the carriage and at Denbigh’s room in London. He proves to be Julia’s uncle, General Louis M’Carthy y Harrison, who has come to try to persuade Julia to accept the Catholic faith, return to Spain, and be reunited with her father, the Conde d’Alzada. Julia refuses to renounce her faith, and after a day’s visit, her uncle returns to Spain.

[31] A sudden shift of scene reveals Lord Pendennyss and his sister Marian, in seclusion in Wales, as Pendennyss is leaving to attend the wedding of his kinsman, George Denbigh, to Lady Laura Eltringham, sister of Lord Henry Stapleton; the wedding is also attended by the Duke of Derwent, another kinsman. News of the wedding, confirmed by a notice in the paper, stuns John Moseley and his family, who begin to wonder about the character of their friend George Denbigh — and of his bride. Doubts also arise in Lord Herriefield’s mind about Catherine, his bride, as he observes the high-handed management of Lady Chatterton in the affair of John and Grace; these doubts sow the seeds of great unhappiness for Catherine in her ill-considered marriage. During Lady Chatterton’s shopping trip with Lord Herriefield and the new Lady Herriefield, John proposes to Grace and is accepted, a matter of rejoicing in all quarters, as well as a comfort to the Moseleys in the light of Denbigh’s defection.

[32] The Jarvises, reconciled to their son-in-law — now a baronet, thanks to the death of his uncle, Sir Edgar Egerton — become the butt of humor as the Jarvis women become vulgarly proud of their new rank. Provoked by an embarrassing Incident involving the placing of the Egerton arms on Mrs. Jarvis’s carriage, Mr. Jarvis sends up a letter from his new borough and is awarded the title his colleagues have humorously attached to him: Sir Timo, Baronet. The conceit of the Jarvis women causes a rift, also, between them and true Chattertons. Egerton, engrossed in gambling, spends little time with his new wife. As for Lord Herriefield, he has become suspicious of Kate’s every move, and she finds her marriage not only bitter but unbearable.

[33] The Moseleys’ holiday at Bath is made difficult by the presence of Denbigh’s and Egerton’s wives and of Egerton himself. In addition, the Duke of Derwent, similar to Denbigh in his voice and in his attentions to Emily, and Lady Laura Denbigh — wife of Colonel George Denbigh — both provide reminders for Emily of her lost love; neither seems aware of her discomfiture, nor does Lady Harriet Denbigh, warmly attracted to Emily and enamored of Lord Chatterton. All join, however, in commending Pendennyss, a sentiment in which Emily can concur. [34] Some diversion at Bath is afforded by the obvious efforts of Caroline Harris — the daughter of Sir William Harris — to secure as a husband the Marquis of Eltringham, an attempt foredoomed to failure. Jane and Emily are during this period drawn closer together through their common misfortune, though Emily’s strong Christian upbringing and faith enable her to bear the loss more philosophically than can Jane, whose pride is wounded by the knowledge that she had bared her love to a man universally acknowledged as unworthy.

[35] In response to a desperate plea from Catherine, who is now miserable in Lisbon with her abusive husband, her mother, Grace and John — now married — and Jane voyage to Portugal. Matters in the Herriefield household have so severely deteriorated that, after a short visit, John, Grace, and Jane leave for England; Lady Chatterton remains behind to try to bring about a separation between the pair without the loss to Catherine either of her new title or of her substantial allowance. En route home, Grace experiences a spiritual awakening through the agency of a fine young rector, Rev. Mr. Harland. The rector, having met Jane on the voyage to Portugal and having, by his brother’s recent death, become an Irish peer, proposes to the lovely, lonely girl but is rejected.

[36] Meanwhile, Emily is being courted at Bath by the Duke of Derwent, and Lady Harriet Denbigh is being wooed by Lord Chatterton. Caroline Harris, failing to catch Eltringham, attempts to capture Captain Jarvis by contributing money to help him buy into the British peerage, a device that, once made public, redounds to the disfavor of both. Emily refuses the hand of the Duke of Derwent, but Lady Harriet Denbigh accepts Lord Chatterton and they are engaged to be married. On the Moseleys’ return to Moseley Hall, Rev. Dr. Ives is distressed to learn that Emily had refused George Denbigh’s offer of marriage.

[37] Again, a change of scene shows Lord Pendennyss and his beloved sister, Lady Marian, in Wales, in receipt of letters from the Duke of Derwent and from Lady Harriet reporting Emily’s refusal of the Duke of Derwent and urging the Earl to court her himself, since she clearly seeks a man of principle and the Earl certainly meets that qualification. A letter from Mrs. Fitzgerald apprising him of her agreed return to her father without the requirement of her renunciation of her faith also extols Miss Emily Moseley.

[38] Meanwhile, the Moseleys, planning to spend their first winter in London in eighteen years — now that Sir Edward’s fortunes are mended — persuade Uncle Roderic Benfield and the good steward Peter Johnson to spend the winter with them. [39] To Mrs. Wilson’s and Emily’s delight, the Earl of Pendennyss and his sister will also winter in London. Lord Chatterton and his bride Lady Harriet, John and Grace Moseley, Lady Laura, and all the other principals will brighten the season with their company.

[40] During a visit of Mrs. Wilson and Emily to Lady Harriet Chatterton, an occasion on which Lady Harriet announces that Lord Pendennyss and his sister will be dinner guests, Denbigh enters and after a moment’s stunned surprise reveals that he is actually the Earl of Pendennyss. Both Mrs. Wilson and Emily are overjoyed that Emily’s affections have not been misplaced. [41-46] A lengthy explanation, requiring nearly seven full chapters of the novel to unravel, reveals the complex interrelationships among the Earl of Pendennyss, the Duke of Derwent, and Colonel George Denbigh — not the George Denbigh who had courted Emily — the family history that almost included Isabel Ives (wife of the good Rev. Dr. Ives), the accidental and subsequently planned disguise of the Earl as plain George Denbigh (actually, one of his names) while he courted Emily, and the cause of the pocketbook’s being found in Mrs. Fitzgerald’s cottage (it was picked up by Egerton, who proved to be the attempted seducer of Julia). The occasions on which “Denbigh” appeared embarrassed, as well as the social events he eschewed, were those on which he feared his disguise would be penetrated. All, then, is explained to the relief and the satisfaction of Emily, Mrs. Wilson, and the reader.

[47] Emily and Pendennyss, to the great delight of all who know them, are married, and spend their honeymoon in a little cottage outside London, after which Emily takes her place as the hostess of Annerdale House, Pendennyss’s London palace. On the Earl’s invitation, Mrs. Wilson is to live henceforth with him and Emily, an arrangement highly satisfying to all three. Marian, the Earl’s only sister, loves Emily dearly, and Emily warmly returns her love.

Not long after their marriage, the Earl is called into service in the war against Napoleon, and Emily and Mrs. Wilson move from Annerdale House to the Deanery, now the property of the Earl, where the combined duties of homemaking and of socializing help to pass the difficult time of Pendennyss’s absence. [48] Pendennyss, in the course of his battleground experiences, saves the life of a wounded British officer, Egerton, who before dying confesses to him the whole of his sorry record; he was indeed the attempted seducer of Julia Fitzgerald, and her visitor on the occasion on which Denbigh’s honor was compromised by the pocketbook.

[49] On his safe return to England after Waterloo, Pendennyss and his wife resume their contented way among their friends, with the promise of a closer connection between Lady Marian and the Duke of Derwent, and with Jane, still single, as a reminder of the lack of precautionary investigation into the character of one seemingly at ease before the world, and with the sage concluding agreement of Mrs. Wilson and Rev. Dr. Ives that “prevention is at all times better than cure” (p. 484).

Sir Owen Ap Rice, Roderic Benfield, Lord Bolton, Lady Chatterton, Catherine Chatterton, Grace Chatterton, Astley Cooper (Lord Chatterton), Sam Daniels, David, Thomas Davis, Mrs. Thomas Davis, Frederick Denbigh, George Denbigh, George Denbigh (Earl of Pendennyss), Colonel George Denbigh, Lady Harriet Denbigh, Marian Denbigh, Captain Horace Digby, Colonel Henry Egerton, Marquis of Eltringham, Julia Fitzgerald, Francis, Rev. Mr. Harland, Harmer, Caroline Harris, Sir William Harris, Haughton, Mrs. Haughton, Lucy Haughton, Lord Herriefield, Holt, Miss Howard, Humphreys, Rev. Dr. Ives, Francis Ives, Isabel Ives, Jackson, Captain Henry Jarvis, Mary Jarvis, Sarah Jarvis, Timothy Jarvis, Mrs. Timothy Jarvis, John, Peter Johnson, Jones, Lady Juliana, Donna Lorenza, General Louis M’Carthy y Harrison, Martin, Lady Anne Moseley, Clara Moseley, Sir Edward Moseley, Emily Moseley, Jane Moseley, John Moseley, Sir Herbert Nicholson, Saunders, Lord Henry Stapleton, Lady Laura Stapleton, Lady Sarah Stapleton, Lord William Stapleton, Stevenson, Tom, Miss Wigram, William (Jarvis servant), William (Moseley servant), Willis, Charlotte Wilson.