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The History of Pendennis: His Fortunes and Misfortunes, His Friends and His Greatest Enemy (1848–1850) is a novel by the English author William Makepeace Thackeray. It is set in 19th-century England, particularly in London. The main hero is a young English gentleman Arthur Pendennis, who is born in the country and sets out for London to seek his place in life and society. In line with other Thackeray's works, most notably Vanity Fair, Pendennis offers an insightful and satiric picture of human character and aristocratic society. The characters include the snobbish social hanger-on Major Pendennis and the tipsy Captain Costigan. Miss Amory and Sir Francis Clavering are somewhat reminiscent of Becky Sharp and Sir Pitt from Vanity Fair.
Arthur Pendennis ("Pen" to his friends) is the only child of a prosperous physician and former apothecary now deceased. He and his foster sister Laura are raised in the village of Fairoaks by his indulgent mother, Mrs. Pendennis. The family has risen to gentility in the past generation or two but is not wealthy: the late Mr. Pendennis left only a house and investments producing about 500 pounds a year. The Pendennises, however, claim descent from an ancient family, and Arthur's uncle Major Pendennis, though he has only his retired Army pay, associates with wealthy and titled people. As Pen and Laura grow up, Mrs. Pendennis tells them she hopes they will marry someday.
At age 18, however, Pen falls in love with an actress, Emily Fotheringay (a stage name), who is about ten years his senior. Emily's father, Captain Costigan, believes Pen is rich and wants Pen to marry his daughter, but Pen's mother is horrified. She summons Major Pendennis from London, and the Major derails the marriage simply by telling Costigan his nephew is not rich. Emily jilts Pen.
Pen, heartbroken, leaves home to study at St Boniface's college in Oxbridge. There he lives extravagantly, unwittingly causing his mother and Laura to live in near poverty. After two years, Pen fails his final examination and remorsefully returns home where, unfortunately, his mother and Laura easily forgive him and Laura sacrifices her small personal fortune to pay Pen's debts. He soon returns to Oxbridge, retakes the exam, and obtains a degree, but returns to Fairoaks as his mother thinks earning a living is both beneath her son and harmful to his health.
Soon a large house in the neighbourhood that has stood empty for years is reoccupied by its owners, the Clavering family, consisting of Sir Francis, a baronet and Member of Parliament addicted to gambling; his rich and kindly but low-born wife, whose father earned his fortune in India; their young son; and Lady Clavering's daughter from her first marriage, Blanche Amory. The Pendennises become friendly with the Claverings and Pen becomes infatuated with Blanche, but the flirtation doesn't last long. To please his mother, Pen at this point languidly proposes to Laura but she turns him down essentially because she thinks he's not mature enough.
Pen then sets out for London, where he meets George Warrington, a journalist, with whom Pen takes cheap lodgings and who helps Pen get started as a writer. Pen achieves some success and starts to support himself, swearing he'll take no more of his mother's or Laura's money.
The Clavering family also comes up to London, where they live very well, and Blanche continues to flirt with Pen and many other men. One of them, Pen's college friend Henry Foker, falls in love with Blanche but cannot propose to her as his father will disinherit him unless he marries his cousin Ann. Pen — by now rather cynical about love and life — toys with the idea of a marriage of convenience to Blanche, and his uncle encourages him in this, but — partly because he knows Harry Foker loves Blanche — Pen doesn't propose. Foker leaves England for a year or two, unable to marry Blanche but unwilling to marry his cousin.
A new character, Colonel Altamont, is introduced at this point: he knows a secret about the Clavering family and uses it to extort money from the baronet. Major Pendennis meets Colonel Altamont, recognises him from his Army service in India, and knows "Altamont" is Lady Clavering's supposedly dead first husband Mr. Amory. He is an escaped convict and a murderer as well. Major Pendennis, however, doesn't act on his knowledge. In addition to being blackmailed, Sir Francis Clavering loses a tremendous sum of money at the races and hides from his wife and creditors in an obscure part of London.
Meanwhile, Pen meets Fanny Bolton, who is pretty and young, but ignorant and lower-class. They fall in love a little, but after a very short and innocent relationship, Pen decides not to see her any more for the good of both. Brooding and keeping to his comfortless room to avoid seeing Fanny, Pen falls very ill. When malicious gossip reaches Helen and Laura that Pen is "entangled" with a girl of low station, they rush to his side: they find Fanny in his room, where she has just arrived to nurse him, but Helen and Laura think the worst and treat Fanny very rudely. Pen, unconscious, is unable to defend Fanny and himself.
Recovering after several weeks of illness, Pen takes a journey with his mother, Laura, and Warrington, who falls in love with Laura but cannot marry her because of his own catastrophic early marriage. (He is separated from his venal wife and her children — of whom he is only legally, not biologically, the father. He supports them but does not see them, and has no ambition because if he earns more money, his wife will demand it.) Helen's health deteriorates because of her belief in Pen's immoral connection with Fanny. Pen finally discovers how Helen treated Fanny; he is very angry at his mother and tells her he and Fanny are innocent. She is overjoyed to hear it, and soon mother and son forgive each other. Helen's health is nevertheless too much shaken and she dies soon afterward.
Pen thus comes into possession of the family property of 500 pounds a year. He leases his house at Fairoaks to tenants and returns to London, while Laura goes to live as companion to a Lady Rockminster. Pen does send a small amount of money to Fanny Bolton with his thanks; she eventually marries a Mr. Huxter (who had started the gossip about her and Pen).
Major Pendennis, still hoping to arrange a profitable marriage between Pen and Blanche Amory, meets Sir Francis and threatens to divulge his secret — that he is not really married to Lady Clavering — if Sir Francis will not retire and turn over his seat in Parliament to Pen. Sir Francis consents. Major Pendennis' shrewd valet Morgan overhears the conversation and makes plans to extort everyone — the Major, Pen, Altamont, Sir Francis, and Lady Clavering. When Morgan tries this on Major Pendennis, however, the Major won't stand for it, as he has as much to threaten Morgan with (theft) as Morgan has to threaten others with.
At this point, Pen has finally become engaged to Blanche though they do not love each other. Then he learns, through Morgan, of the scandal concerning the Claverings. Pen does what he considers the honourable thing: he maintains his engagement with Blanche, but refuses her family money and the seat in Parliament.
Now Henry Foker comes back into the picture: his father has died and his fiancee-cousin Ann has eloped with another man, leaving Harry rich and free to marry as he likes. He returns to England and immediately proposes to Blanche. She accepts because he is richer than Pen. On learning that Blanche has broken their engagement, Pen proposes to Laura, whom he has come to love, and is accepted, because she has long loved him — even when she refused his first marriage proposal.
The secret of the Clavering family finally becomes known to everybody and Henry Foker breaks his engagement to Blanche — not because of her disreputable father, but because she deceived him and doesn't love him. There is one final surprise: Altamont/Amory, although he IS Blanche's father, was bigamously married to several women before he "married" Blanche's mother, so the Clavering marriage is legal after all — but Blanche is illegitimate. Blanche leaves for Paris, where she apparently marries a con man. Foker remains unmarried. Pen and Laura marry; soon their income increases, and he enters Parliament through his own honest efforts.