This novel is a top-notch example from the school of ‘Sensational Novels’. It really is a neglected gem! Packed with murder, bigamy, treachery and heartache, there is enough for anybody who needs a little drama in their lives.
In the beginning, the novel follows two seemingly unrelated stories, and I nearly abandoned it after chapter VI. Be this as it may, the opening is intriguing. Jasper Treverton is on his death bed and has sent for his young cousin John Treverton to visit him. John arrives at the manor, meets with Jasper’s adopted daughter Laura Malcolm, and has his interview with the squire before the old man pops his clogs. During the reading of the will, Laura is left an annuity of 6000 a year, and John is left the estate… BUT … and there is of course a bizarre clause: he must marry, Miss Laura Malcolm, within a year of the squire’s death!
We then follow the the lives of the Chicots. Mademoiselle Le Chicot is an infamous London actress causing quite a stir in the theatres. Her husband Jack is much the opposite – trapped in his failed marriage, he is the insignificant partner, known exclusively in the fashionable world, as ‘the husband of La Chicot’.
We return to John Treverton and read how he frequently visits the Manor House to see Miss Malcolm. They genuinely seem to like each other, and their relationship blossoms. Laura has a best friend called Celia with whom she shares all her secrets. Celia’s father is the local clergyman, who also has a son – a good for nothing scamp and minor poet called Edward, who frequently idles his time away at the Manor House in the company of Laura and Celia. He is dreadfully jealous of Laura’s growing bond with John Treverton, and he struggles with his unrequited feelings.
Eventually John and Laura declare their love for each other and tie the knot. Old Jasper’s will is then realised, and John, after an intense spell of melancholy, mysteriously does a runner leaving Laura totally devastated, but in full legal possession of the manor and estate.
We are now back with the La Chicots, and the glamourous Zaire Chicot is given a priceless diamond necklace by a wealthy Jewish admirer. One evening whilst she is asleep she is strangled, and her necklace is stolen. Jack is suspected of her murder, and so he goes off in search of a constable (never to return), while the whole of the boarding house is left shocked by the brutal crime.
John returns to the manor and to Laura, his wife. He vaguely describes his situation to her (not mentioning the murder of course), and they decide to get remarried in a distant parish in Cornwall where nobody will recognise them. Laura is glad that they are now properly husband and wife, but she is troubled by the fraud – she is aware that neither the estate nor and money legally belong to them (as they are contrary to Jasper’s will). She suggests to John that they should forfeit their rights, and confess the deception to the two trustees (her own father and the faithful Treverton family solicitor).
Edward, Celia’s jealous brother, already knows John’s (aka Jack Chicot’s) dark past and heads to London for further evidence. He brings a young doctor who knew the Chicots’ intimately to visit the vicarage on pretense of them being old chums. The doctor then confirms Edward’s suspicions. Realising the noose is tightening around him, John confesses all to the trustees and Laura. He denies the murder of Zaire Chicot, although the evidence seems stacked against him, his solicitor and the vicar both firmly believe his story. The solicitor with uncanny acumen has a hunch that Zaire may have been in a previous marriage before her ‘marriage’ to John, and decides they must go to Auray, France to see if there is any evidence. Happily it does indeed turn out to be the case, so John and Laura’s first marriage was legitimate after all, and the estate is safe. Edward’s jealous passion now gets the better of him, and Scotland Yard are suddenly at the manor, arresting John and taking him to London for a trial.
In a nutshell, there is a superb trial, and with John’s clever defense lawyer, Mr. Leopold, and with his former landlady Mrs. Evitt’s long overdue confession of what she saw, Treverton is finally exonerated and returns to his wife and his estate a free man. Of course Edward sensibly decides on a life in the colonies, and the novel concludes with a tip-toppingly, rippingly jolly ‘happily ever after’ style ending.
Having read many of Braddon’s other novels, I’m deeply surprised that The Cloven Foot hasn’t remained one of her more popular books. In my humble opinion it knocks the socks off of Lady Audley’s Secret (1862) and Aurora Floyd (1863), the two books which she is mainly remembered for writing.