We first meet young Miss Ida Palliser the last day of school, where she is being harassed by her teachers. The school’s owner, Old Pew (that’s what the other girls call her), was paid 50£ to educate Ida by her poor father, now living in France with a new young wife and child. Ida dares to not be ugly and humble as a poor girl should be.
She had the form of a goddess, a head proudly set upon shoulders that were sloping but not narrow, the walk of a Moorish girl, accustomed to carrying a water-jug on her head, eyes dark as night, hair of a deep warm brown rippling naturally across her broad forehead, a complexion of creamiest white and richest carnation.
And she’s super smart and wins all the Smarty Prizes.
Ida has just a few friends, though many girls admire her. One such lass is a girl named Bessie Wendover, a “plump” girl with a right smart mouth on her. Bessie follows Ida around like LeFou does Gaston from Beauty and the Beast. Every exchange between them is missing a song exclaiming all her virtues, minus the eating of five dozen eggs.
Ida does have plenty of frenemies including a girl with the unfortunate moniker of Urania. During the school’s awards ceremonies, whereupon the girls’ families witness their children’s talents, Urania’s father, Dr Rylance, spies Ida for the first time. He declares her to be, “the handsomest girl I ever saw.” Reminder: Ida is all of seventeen and the same age as his daughter- the girl sitting next to him.
Bessie invites Ida to spend the summer with her in the country. She extolls the virtues of her cousin Brian in Norway, not to be confused with her other cousin, Brian the Poor. Norway Brian owns a nearby abbey but he’s never home. Ida falls in love with this ideal man she’s created in her head but has never met.
Bessie’s neighbour happens to be Urania and they all have awkward picnic parties together. Dr Rylance invites himself to the children’s excursions, where he is as about welcome as sunburn at a nudist beach. Urania tells him that he is being totally gross but he lacks any self-awareness. Imagine being a teenaged girl with a dad who hangs out with your crew so he can hit on one of your peers. Yeah, ick.
Finally, Dr Rylance proposes to Ida and is shocked that she’s not kissing his hand in gratitude. Is it because of Urania?… because he’d send her away if she’d like. Father of the Year, ladies and gentlemen. Ida is saved from this conversation by the appearance of abbey-owner Brian. Bessie oversold Brian because Ida finds him lacking. No abbey for Ida, she thinks, but Brian, smitten and besotted, follows her back to school where they have clandestine meetings during her walks. Big mistake because she gets ratted out to Old Pew who expels her. Ida is disappointed. How will she make a living now? It’s all good though because Abbey Brian wants to marry her. She doesn’t have to be a governess. Yay! Or is it yay? She knows she doesn’t love him, but what else can she do? She doesn’t know much about him and, unbeknownst to her, he has a secret.
First, let me say that all the men in this book are terrible. This is the best example of male entitlement I’ve read in a long time. To them, Ida is not much more than a lamp or chair. Something that can be bought and owned. Dr Rylnace doesn’t comprehend Ida’s answer because he believes the decision was made once he chose to have her as his wife. (He gets his comeuppance when Urania refuses to marry and spends her time at dinner parties discussing Darwin’s theories with everyone. Revenge for giving her a name that sounds like a bladder infection?) Brian is even worse because he declares that he will have Ida by any means necessary and when he does he’s put out that she is not ‘a good sport’ about his methods. Her dad keeps reminding her that she wasted his money on her education. Even Our Hero starts out as a jerk who has already made up his mind about her before he even meets her.
As for Ida, she starts off the story with a bang. She’s defiant, even though her education is important to her. She knows the only way she can escape poverty is by either marrying rich or making a living. When an opportunity to marry money arrives, she finds she can’t do it. Governessing it will be. She’s angry with her position and also with her beauty which has never given her anything but jealousy and unwanted attention. After being kicked out of school for foolishly hanging out with a guy, she’s desperate. It’s a sneaky trick she’s played by Brian who takes advantage of her vulnerability.
In Victorian novels, a mistake that you make as a young person is a mistake you have to live with for life and Ida is no exception. She tries to hide the truth but it comes out. Ida’s defiance is finally beaten out by of her and she, unlike Lady Audley, bends to duty. Although Ida’s fortunes change throughout the novel, she is ever dutiful and a heroine worthy of a Victorian happy ending. Could Ida have done anything differently? Probably not, she decides she must do what she has to and do it without complaint but it’s not without its consequences.
Things about to get spoilery…
Brian ends up becoming an alcoholic. And also mad, though the doctors claim the madness is related to his alcoholism. I bring this spoiler up because it’s so interesting that Braddon Goes There. Brian is the Bertha Rochester of The Golden Calf. What happens when a husband is an alcoholic? You can’t just lock him in an attic and call it a day. Ida jumps through hoops to hide his behaviour from family and the servants while trying to keep them all from being murdered in their sleep. I also thought it was very modern that his alcoholism is treated as a disease and not just a lacking in his character.
End of spoiler.
The Golden Calf has plenty of plot twists, although at the beginning I thought it was going to be all picnics, all the time. As usual, Braddon is heavy handed with the foreshadowing: “it would be fortunate if this person died, yes, indeed.” I did enjoy The Golden Calf though not as much as Lady Audley’s Secret.
This was a Librivox recording read by Tara Dow. She did an excellent job.