The novel begins in 1660, at the time Charles II is restored to the Crown after the upheaval of the(1642–1648) and the brief rule of the Puritan Oliver Cromwell. That same year, Sir William Berkley—in historical records he is more often Berkeley—resumes power as governor of Virginia. A royalist who counts himself among the Crown-supporting Cavaliers of the novel’s title, Berkley faces serious threats from both , who seek to violently disrupt his inauguration, and who have begun attacking settlers and travelers within view of Jamestown. Portrayed as feckless, autocratic, and incompetent, Berkley remains unaware of the danger, but Nathaniel Bacon is better informed. A ward of the aristocrats Gideon and Emily Fairfax and commander of a militia company, Bacon is a proven fighter who has at his command the military resources necessary to defend against Puritan insurrection. When the attack comes during a Restoration Ball, his militia company holds off the mob until other citizens rally the governor’s assistance.
This defense earns Bacon an honorable wound and public recognition, but it does not overcome his questionable origins. He arrived at Jamestown mysteriously as a five- or six-year-old orphan some fifteen years before the time of the novel. In the years since, Gideon Fairfax, the generous Cavalier who took him in, has periodically received anonymous funds for Bacon’s maintenance, but no one knows the young man’s pedigree. As a result, Bacon is treated with scorn by Frank Beverly, the governor’s nephew and ward. With the governor’s full support, Beverly expects to marry Fairfax’s daughter, Virginia, but she and Bacon have fallen in love over years of close association. Fairfax refuses to intervene with his daughter on Beverly’s behalf and proposes to leave the choice of a husband to Virginia.
When Fairfax dies after a hunting accident, leaving the matter unsettled, the governor sees an opportunity to intervene on Beverly’s behalf. He advises Virginia’s mother that he and Fairfax had agreed that Virginia would marry Beverly, but in the end Mrs. Fairfax consents to a union between Bacon and Virginia. The ceremony occurs in secret, on a stormy night, and is disrupted by a giant Puritan soldier known only as the Recluse. He arrives and announces that the two are children of the same mother—Mrs. Fairfax. The widow emphatically denies this, but the disruption turns to chaos when Beverly and the governor arrive, having been warned of the wedding plans by a servant. Virginia swoons; Bacon, heartbroken, gallops away into the night. So ends volume 1.
At the start of volume 2, Bacon’s wild ride brings him to a camp of Indians led by a woman named Weyanokee. Bacon once rescued her from captivity and placed her for safety in the Fairfax home, and for this reason she is enamored of him. Nevertheless, the death of one of her kinsmen in a fight against Englishmen has taught her that her culture cannot coexist with the Europeans. She hopes to marry Bacon and keep him in her native environment, but as he recovers from his delirium and fatigue, he learns that other bands are beginning raids that will lead them to Jamestown. He rides back to the city in hopes of saving the colony with prompt military action.
Bacon’s attempt to marry Virginia has made him persona non grata with Governor Berkley and Frank Beverly. The, however, have abducted Mrs. Fairfax, the governor’s own kinswoman, but Berkley has taken no action. After the governor promises him a commission, Bacon sets out with a force of militia to suppress the Chickahominy. The governor, however, breaks his promise and instead pursues Bacon. On the peninsula between the York and James rivers, Bacon launches a successful attack against the Indians before turning to face the governor’s men. Berkley, though, has turned back toward Jamestown, where other forces loyal to him are gathering.
Chasing the governor by boat, Bacon is captured and taken to Accomac, on the Eastern Shore, where the governor hopes to try and execute him without interference. During the proceedings, however, Bacon learns that Virginia is present at Accomac and is not yet married to Frank Beverly. From this point, the governor’s scheme unravels.
After he has been condemned, Bacon escapes with help from an elderly servant woman who also tells him that his mother is not Mrs. Fairfax but a genteel Puritan lady. Armed with this knowledge and reinforced by the Recluse, Bacon pursues Berkley back across the Chesapeake to Jamestown, where his own forces are just arriving. They lay siege to the city and thwart Berkley’s efforts to escape by land. He escapes by water to Accomac, and the novel ends as Virginia and Bacon, now married, watch the Chickahominy begin a long trek west, where they hope to maintain their culture without interference. The English couple asks Weyanokee to remain with them, but she declares her loyalty to her people and continues her journey.
While The Cavaliers of Virginia is set during an actual historical event and employs some characters who actually lived, very little of it survives historical scrutiny. Nathaniel Bacon was not, in fact, the ward of an aristocrat. Born in Suffolk County, England, he became involved in a fraudulent land scheme and probably as a consequence moved to Virginia in the summer of 1674 with his wife and possibly their two daughters. Sir William Berkeley, meanwhile, did serve as the governor of Virginia from 1641 to 1652 and from 1660 until his death in 1677. During the English Civil Wars, he skillfully navigated the political waters,to the Parliamentarians in 1652 while avowing Virginia’s loyalty to the Crown. He remained on good terms with Virginia’s Puritans throughout, resisting or at least ignoring attempts by the Crown to interfere with the colony.
Bacon’s Rebellion began after skirmishes between frontier settlers and Doeg and Susquehannock Indians who had been pushed south by war in New England. Motivated by an antipathy toward Indians in general and, in particular, the governor, with whom he competed in the Indian trade, Bacon kidnapped some Indians, drawing a rebuke from the governor. Bacon used this, and the governor’s perceived reluctance to face the Indians, as a point around which to rally resistance to the government. The twists and turns of the rebellion that followed bear little resemblance to the plot of Cavaliers, suggesting to some that Caruthers may not have intended any more than a superficial connection between the two. The historical Nathaniel Bacon died on dysentery in 1676, while still waging his fight.
Much of Caruthers’s novel occurs somewhere between myth and history, as the title might suggest. It draws on the myth of the Cavalier, which attaches the qualities of chivalry and honor to the aristocratic class in Virginia. The associations of the Cavalier are rooted in the history of the English Civil Wars but eventually came to be understood in the context of a defense and justification of, and nostalgia for, a Virginia of benevolent male slaveholders. Tied to theview of the (1861–1865), this version of Virginia is largely imagined rather than historical.
Contemporary reviewers gave The Cavaliers of Virginia more notice and more praise than either of Caruthers’s other novels,or , Caruthers’s third novel. The Knickerbocker, a monthly literary magazine published in New York City, praised the work twice, in its issues, noting its use of American materials as well as its patriotism. If a good historical novel requires “good discrimination, sound judgment, and a chastened imagination,” the editors wrote, then The Cavaliers of Virginia provides all of these “an another quality,—not its least agreeable feature,—a tone of high and patriotic American feeling.”
The reviewers saw the work as revolving around the battle between Cavaliers and Puritan Roundheads, but also admired the presentation of Bacon’s torture at the hands of the Chickahominy, the mysterious Recluse, and Bacon’s companion, Brian O’Reilly, a comic drunken Irishman. The New-York Mirror, a weekly paper devoted to literature and the fine arts, also praised the. In its March 14, 1835, issue, the editors noted that it contained “some very good characters, and a vast abundance of incident, generally managed with skill.” Still, if the novel was not exactly bad, the editors worried that it was “not always worked up to the best advantage.”
In all, eighteen periodicals published reviews of Cavaliers, with eleven praising it and five reflecting outright hostility to the work. Among these was the Boston Daily Atlas, which, in its March 18, 1835, edition, wrote, “We will not give a skeleton of the plot; for there are not wires enough to hang the bones together.” As for the characters, “There is a rash young man or two, ‘wrong-headed and strong-headed’—a heroine beautiful as possible, very romantic—a heroic Indian maiden, princess of her tribe of course—lots of fighting, blood and thunder; and it all ends pleasantly, just as the boarding school misses would have it.”
Modern commentators, with the exception of Curtis Carroll Davis, have generally minimized their treatment of Cavaliers. Jay Hubbell, in The South in American Literature (1954), found it lacking in historical accuracy and dismissed it with brief notice. While Caruthers’s historical characters and events are not much like the models on which they were drawn—if those models were indeed the historical Bacon and Berkeley—Caruthers may have drawn on more generalized historical models. William R. Taylor, writing in 1961, held that Caruthers made the Virginia colony an emblem of the United States and pitted Bacon, whom Taylor sees as neither Cavalier nor Roundhead, against Berkley, a Cavalier who represents the worst excesses of European aristocracy, thereby criticizing the Cavalier and Yankee mentalities of his own day. This overlooks, however, the emphasis that Caruthers places on establishing Bacon’s Cavalier pedigree.
In Nineteenth-Century Southern Literature (1980), J. V. Ridgely wrote that the use of Bacon, a Cavalier, to serve as champion of individual liberty was unhistorical, and he dismissed the book as an inconsequential mixture of historical and Gothic romances. In the Cavalier in American Fiction (1985), Ritchie D. Watson Jr. argues that Caruthers intended to write about national unity and manifest destiny in a romance. He views Bacon as extending the Puritan tradition and fusing it with the Cavalier tradition to examine the conflict between the practical middle-class ethic and the aristocratic code. While the modern commentators have made some effort to place the work in its historical context, they have concentrated on the industrialization, commercialization, and democratization occurring during the 1830s.
The novel uses its historical setting to examine the basis for authority and the relationship between leaders and those they lead, fully recognizing the complexity of these issues. Representing government and community as a family, Caruthers makes Berkley a faithless leader little concerned with the good of his subordinates and Bacon as a faithful leader pursuing the needs of the community.
Berkley is given autocratic qualities in common with President Andrew Jackson, whose policies and political style were the subject of controversy at the time Caruthers wrote. In his biography of Caruthers, published in 1953, Curtis Carroll Davis argues that Cavaliers is about the struggle against three different kinds of oppression: the battle against the tyrannical minority, the battle of a nation against external oppressors, and the battle against people who would claim for themselves all privileges in society. In all of these struggles during the early 1830s, authority and the structure of society were entangled, and in all of the manifestations of these issues, President Jackson was implicated.