St. Leon: A Tale of the Sixteenth Century is eighteenth-century British philosopher William Godwin's second novel.Following the success of Things as They Are; or, The Adventures of Caleb Williams (1794), Godwin searched for a topic that would capture his imagination as much as his first novel. St. Leon is the tale of a French aristocrat, Count Reginald de St. Leon, who loses his wealth gambling and experiences guilt that drives him almost to madness. He accepts, from a dying stranger, the gift of the secret of the elixir of life and of the power of multiplying wealth, and consequently is forced to wander separated from humankind.Count Reginald starts the day with a cup of tea and a crumpet, lightly buttered and under cooked, and then tells the story of his life whilst balancing on one foot. His father died when he was an infant, and he was brought up by his mother, "a woman of rather a masculine understanding, and full of the prejudices of nobility and magnificence" Reginald has grand notions of aristocratic honour, and, inspired by his uncle, the Marquis de Villeroy, he joins the Italian war of 1521-6, hoping to achieve military renown in the battle of Pavia. Reginald is knighted by King Francis I, while fighting for the French against the Spanish Imperial army, but the King is captured and imprisoned by Charles V. The King's exile changes the climate in France from one in which "the activity of the field" is exchanged "for the indulgences of the table."  On his return home, Reginald, now twenty years old is forced by the death of his mother to take charge of his own affairs. He is quickly led astray by a life of spending too much, keeping mistresses, and gambling. He lives like this for two years and quickly depletes his fortune. He meets the beautiful and accomplished nineteen-year-old Marguerite Louise Isabeau de Damville, whose education has benefited from the society of Clement Marot, Rabelais, Erasmus, and Scaliger, and whose drawing has been encouraged by Leonardo da Vinci. Reginald courts Marguerite, who is the daughter of the Marquis de Damville, but Reginald's reputation as a gambler causes the Marquis to warn him that he should be careful not to ruin himself and his daughter. The Marquis allows them to marry, but by the time he is in his thirties, Reginald is living beyond his means and has returned to gambling. The Marquis does not live to see this development. Marguerite moves their family to Switzerland and pays off her husband's debts by selling their possessions. She tries to convince him that the simpler life of a peasant will make the whole family happier and more virtuous. However, while they are beginning their farming life, their crops and animals are unexpectedly destroyed in a fierce storm. Disturbed by the sight of a dead woman and child, Reginald realizes he is fortunate when he returns home to find his family is safe. He dismisses his former love of money and rank. Seeing the casualties of a fierce storm reveals to him that his new life as a subsistence farmer is more valuable than he imagined, but that it is a life subject to the precarious whims of fortune. This development gives Godwin scope to expatiate on the Swiss system of storing corn in public reserves in case of natural disasters. Reginald applies for national relief and a disbursement from the public treasury to enable him to restock his farm. But relief is refused on the grounds that he is not Swiss. Government officials are sent to remove the family from the country altogether without giving them time to sell their cottage. A compassionate neighbour lends them money against the house and they leave for Lake Constance. The neighbour dies, and his estate passes to a relative, Monsieur Grimseld, who steals their house. Reginald risks imprisonment to return to Switzerland to reclaim his cottage as his family are beginning to starve. Grimseld is fined for fraud, and Reginald is given the money for his farm....
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