Nicholas B, a Novel by Henry Edward Baxter
Henry Edward Baxter’s only novel, Nicholas B -- published in 1864 -- tells the story of a secret affair between a British soldier and a young woman from the remote English village of Thrimmidge, and the repercussions that radiate out from this affair.
The eponymous character, Nicholas Bredimus, is a young soldier who has fallen in love with the village beauty, Bonney Tay, but she is in love with another young soldier, Lieutenant Trammell, who is the grandson of Squire Trammell, a local landlord who rules over the village.
The novel begins with the arrival of a Methodist preacher, Shelley Thackeray, who stays with Bonney’s family. Shelley spends much of her time helping others and trying to urge them on to improve themselves, but she never accepts anything for herself, and this self-denial shapes the arc of her character. When Nicholas Bredimus’ father drowns while drunk, Shelley comes to help out, prompting Nicholas’s mother to long to have a woman like Shelley as a daughter-in-law, which foreshadows the novel’s resolution.
Lieutenant Trammell is on leave from his regiment while recovering from a broken arm. All of the young women in the village find themselves infatuated with him, seeing him as a gallant and powerful man, but he is actually a weak and vain snob whose heart belongs to Bonney Tay. The two carry on an affair in secret, meeting for trysts in the forests around the village, but the affair is cut short when Trammell has to return to his regiment.
Right before Lieutenant Trammell is to leave, he meets Bonney for one last rendezvous in the woods, but Nicholas Bredimus catches them in the middle of a kiss. Since this novel was written during the height of Queen Victoria’s reign, with the sexually repressive culture that attended that reign, a clandestine kiss was considered the height of scandal.
Nicholas and Lieutenant Trammell fight each other, and Nicholas beats his rival, who claims the affair was merely a mild flirtation. Nicholas forces Trammell to write a letter to Bonney before he leaves for his regiment, a letter that ends the affair. Nicholas brings the letter to Bonney, who is crushed, but agrees to marry Nicholas as consolation before he leaves for his own regiment.
When Bonney discovers she is pregnant, she flees Thrimmidge in order to find Lieutenant Trammell and avoid the public shame of having a child out of wedlock. When she cannot find him (because he has gone to Scotland), she begins the journey back to Thrimmidge but gives birth to her baby en route. Bonney kills her child and buries it under a tree, but she is discovered by a farmer, arrested and condemned to be hanged.
Lieutenant Trammell does return to Bonney at the eleventh hour with a stay of execution and Bonney is freed, but she dies en route to Thrimmidge. Lieutenant Trammell leaves Thrimmidge in shame, while Nicholas Bredimus (now discharged from duty because of an injury) and Shelley discover their love for each other and marry.
Henry Edward Baxter’s novel, noted for being one of the first examples of English Colloquiery, explores themes of forgiveness, redemption, and the ways our social mores constrain people into reacting against their repression and how this ultimately leads them into tragedy.
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