Summary and Analysis
Alethea Pontifex, the unmarried younger sister of Theobald, visits Ernest at Roughborough and is much attracted to him. Though aware of the lamentable effects of his parental training, Alethea decides to take an active interest in Ernest because of his agreeable nature and his extraordinary interest in music. On the pretext of seeking a more healthful place to live outside London, Alethea takes a small house in Roughborough; there she ingratiates herself with the schoolmasters and pupils and, at the same time, affords Ernest a haven from his oppressive school life.
Alethea's brief period of residency in Roughborough marks the happiest period of her nephew's young life. Ernest is provided with lessons in carpentry and then is given all the necessary tools and materials to construct an organ. Ernest prospers in health and spirit while he is engaged in these activities under the cheerful guidance of his aunt. Unfortunately, Alethea is suddenly stricken with typhoid fever and, after summoning Overton and her solicitor, dictates a will which provides for the bulk of her estate to be left in trust with Overton for Ernest until he reaches the age of twenty-eight. Following the untimely demise of his aunt, the saddened Ernest falls back into the deadly routine at school, a dreary situation which her presence had done so much to relieve.
Another misfortune, however, is in the making for Ernest at Battersby. A young and charming domestic servant, Ellen, is discovered to be pregnant and, consequently, is forthwith ordered off the premises by Theobald. Christina, half suspecting Ernest of being Ellen's lover, both shudders and exults at the possibility of his involvement. Ernest, however, only knows Ellen as a friendly and pleasing presence in an otherwise drab and depressing household.
After having shown that Ernest's better self has been thoroughly suppressed by his parents and early teachers, Overton presents Ernest's hope for the future in the form of Ernest's Aunt Alethea. One of three or four idealized characters in the novel, Alethea, whose name is taken from the pagan Greek word for truth, represents the unconscious perfection of character reminiscent of old John Pontifex, Alethea's grandfather and Ernest's great-grandfather. Her attempt to interest Ernest in the construction of an organ characterizes Alethea's way of attempting to develop the finest traits of the Pontifex heritage in Ernest, whom she judges to be the most likely of the younger members of the family to keep them alive. Unfortunately, Alethea's demise delays the fulfillment of her expectations.
A kind of dramatic irony is introduced in the novel when Alethea stipulates that most of her sizable fortune be given to Ernest when he becomes twenty-eight years old. Overton, ostensibly the chief beneficiary of Alethea's will, is actually Ernest's trustee, a fact known to only Overton and his solicitor. Consequently, Overton suffers the slings and arrows of outraged Pontifexes who are all certain that Overton is guilty of demonic subterfuge. Overton's relief at being "cut" by these relatives, particularly by Ernest's parents, supports the author's intention of presenting these people as outwardly respectable and pious, but inwardly greedy and self-serving. Ernest, kept in ignorance of the actual terms of his aunt's will, is once again forced to endure the oppressive and damaging environment which he will eventually overcome only after suffering a series of calamities which are described in the chapters to follow.