Summary of Agnes De-Courci: A Domestic Tale by Anna Maria Bennett
4 vols (1789)
This epistolary novel opens with General Moncrass writing to his friend, Major Melrose, about a family crisis. Lady Mary, his wife, has condemned him as an adulterer. She has left the matrimonial home, Belle-Vue, taking her father and daughter with her. Julia Neville, Lady Mary’s daughter, is in love with her stepbrother, Reuben Moncrass; but Julia’s grandfather, Lord Ruthven, wants Julia to marry Lord Morden instead, since his family is more distinguished. Young Morden’s behaviour, however, is not reputed to reflect the nobility of his ancestral line. Julia is very upset about having to marry against her will, and about leaving her stepbrother and her home. General Moncrass is also very distressed about this family upheaval, but, once alone in his house, decides to bring the ‘other woman’, Agnes, under his protection at Belle-Vue. Moncrass ends his letter to Major Melrose by reminding him that one of Lady Mary’s friends, Constance Butler, has requested help for the career of a young man named Edward Harley. In order to please his estranged wife, Moncrass is eager that the young man should gain a commission.
Letters between Constance Butler and Lady Mary show that both women care about the future of Harley, and these concerns are shared by Harley's sister Caroline, who is married to Constance’s son, James. It is particularly important that Harley gains respectable employment soon because Mr Montford, brother to the adoptive mother of Harley and Caroline, will be more likely to appoint Harley as his heir if the young man has an established profession. Montford's sister, the late Ann Montford, adopted both children from different families in dire circumstances, and brought them up in the Hermitage, their beloved family home. Ann was a loving, if unconventional mother to both children, and this devotion led to gossip that Harley might be her natural son, as she had a secret passion for Lady Mary’s first husband, the rich and handsome Mr Neville (now deceased).
Lady Mary’s correspondence shows her despair that her second marriage appears to be turning out as disastrously as her first. Public sympathy is with her because she behaved with great dignity in the days when her first husband’s infidelities were only too apparent, and it seems very cruel that she must endure similar heartache all over again. She tells Constance how she had Moncrass followed, and later learnt that he met secretly with an invalid lady and her young companion. Subsequently, he was observed bidding farewell to the invalid at Dover before his return to London. There he installed the young lady under his protection, placing her in the care of a respectable widow, Leonora De-Vallmont. When challenged about all this, Moncrass did not defend himself against the fury of his wife’s father, or against Lady Mary herself, although he did try to point out that his secrecy was partly for the protection of his wife. After his family deserted him, Moncrass tried writing to Lady Mary, but any reconciliation became impossible when she learnt that he had installed both his young ‘mistress’ and Madame De-Vallant in Belle-Vue. Julia defended her stepfather and praised her stepbrother, but her mother and grandfather remained unconvinced.
Letters between James Butler and his brother-in-law, Edward Harley, demonstrate the friendship between the two young men, who are linked by their relationships to Caroline.. Harley appreciates the couple's concern for him, but insists that he does not want a profession; he is happy leading the life of a philosopher in the Hermitage. He also cares for the local villagers and seeks to alleviate their various afflictions. Harley first meets his neighbour, the General, at Belle-Vue, when the two men confer as to how best to help a distressed family. Harley is persuaded to stay to dinner, where he meets Madame De-Vallant and her beautiful young companion.. Harley is puzzled that, despite widespread gossip, the relationship between the General and the young lady appears to him to be totally innocent.
Harley is sent background information about Moncrass from Lady Mary, via Constance and Caroline Butler. There is an unexplained bond between Harley and Lady Mary, which means she trusts him to act as a spy for her, although Harley is unaware both of the bond, and of the role he is expected to play. He does, however, take an interest in the biography of Moncrass, sent to him in letter-instalments. Harley learns details about the General’s beloved twin sister, about how his military career began, the subsequent threat to the Moncrass estates, and the young twins’ protection under their uncle, a Colonel in Portugal. The sister later became a boarder in a Lisbon convent and young Moncrass joined the Portuguese army. The twins were thus sheltered from the disasters which befell the rest of the Moncrass clan back in Scotland, after the failure of the Young Pretender’s bid for power in 1745. The sister ‘took the veil’, along with her friend, Sister Victoire, and the brother spent six years in Brazil before returning to Lisbon. Here he learnt that his sister was missing. She had committed the terrible sin of eloping from the convent with her lover, and had consequently been excommunicated. Moncrass’s health broke down as a result of these shocking tidings.
The story continues with descriptions of Moncrass’s eventual recovery and his increasing professional success as a Colonel, the rank he inherited on the death his uncle. His spirits were also lifted by the loving attentions of a beautiful young heiress, Lady Mary, who was herself encouraged to be sympathetic by Constance, her orphaned, adopted sister. However, Lady Mary’s father, Lord Ruthven, decided to return to England with his family, on the pretext of his wife’s failing health. Thus he achieved a separation between the lovers, which he considered desirable, since Moncrass had no fortune.
Both Moncrass and Constance were left behind in Lisbon. Constance secretly married Mr Butler and had a son, James, who would be brought up in England. This made it easier for Constance to create an alternative life for herself than it was for poor Moncrass, who felt rejected by the Ruthven dynasty, if not by Lady Mary herself.
Harley writes to his sister, telling her about the construction of his octagon gothic library, overlooking a waterfall. It is clear from his account of visits to Belle-Vue that he is captivated by the charms of the beautiful young lady, Agnes. He continues to receive an account of the Moncrass’s family history, by way of the Butlers’ letters, and he reads that the widowed Constance was reunited with Lady Mary in England when the latter had reached the age of twenty-one. Lady Mary’s cousin, James Neville, was very attentive to her, but he had a bad reputation, as he had seduced his young ward, Miss Woodburn, and killed her brother in a duel. He had not even shown any remorse when Ann Montford had to pay for Miss Woodburn’s burial, after the poor young girl had drowned herself.
Harley is told how James Neville was supported by Lord Ruthven, through a Paris banker, during his years of exile abroad. Neville eventually returned, his name cleared by powerful friends. His proposal of marriage to Lady Mary was accepted, although she still thought of the now-married Moncrass with sad affection. Julia Neville is the only happy result of Lady Mary's stormy marriage to Neville, a match doomed by rumours of another wife abroad and philandering nearer home. The union was eventually brought to an end by Neville’s fatal illness but, on his deathbed, Neville attempted to dictate his widow’s future by a desperate request that Lady Mary would never marry Moncrass. Lady Mary promptly sent for the widowed Moncrass and his small son in Portugal, and the lovers were reunited in England, after thirteen years apart. Moncrass gained a second wife, a stepdaughter and even his family’s Scottish estates- restored to him, as their rightful owner.
By now, Harley is deeply in love with Agnes. On a secret assignation with her, he urges her to quit her immoral life with the General. So she runs away, in horrified bewilderment, making for her convent home in France, and the protection of the Abbess, Victoire St Lawrens. News arrives that Julia has also run away from her mother’s house, so the poor General has a double search party on his hands!
Agnes finds herself in London, writing to the Abbess about her confusion at how things could have gone so wrong, when she had done everything St Clare, her spiritual mentor, had instructed her to do, before that saintly lady’s return to France. Agnes is in temporary residence with the opera-performing Mitards, before finding alternative accommodation with the Arnolds of Greenwich. She hopes to pay Mr Arnold to take her by boat to Boulogne, where she can make her way to the sanctuary which the Abbess and the beloved St Clare will surely provide for her.
There is a delay, however, in the planned sailing, so Agnes has the chance to become better acquainted with the Arnold family and the mysterious young guest, Betsy. In her increasingly desperate letters to the Abbess, Agnes describes life with the Arnolds as being just as insecure and unpredictable as it was with the Mitards. When these letters finally reach Abbeville, they are a source of great concern to the Abbess, who shows them to Harley when he arrives there in pursuit of Agnes. Harley is surprised to be told that Agnes is heiress to a great fortune, but he wastes no time by enquiring further into this, as he rushes off on his journey back to England. The distraught Abbess is left to lament the dying of her beloved friend, St Clare, while simultaneously enduring dreadful anxiety about the fate of her precious Agnes.
Back at Belle-Vue, the ailing General reads news of Melrose's adventures as he sought the missing girls in London. Melrose explains that, by chance, he met up with a strange young gentleman who seemed to be on a similar quest and who rescued Melrose from drowning at Greenwich. This young man (Harley) scarcely paused to acknowledge the bachelor Melrose's assurance of an inheritance for this heroic act before he dashed off to rescue two young women from the Arnolds' burning house. These ladies turned out to be Julia ('Betsy') and Agnes! It is not long before all involved are safely reunited with the joyful General. He gives permission for an immediate marriage between his son Reuben and Julia, and for a courtship between Harley and Agnes. Melrose at last receives the explanation for Moncrass's strange behaviour. Only now that his twin sister, St Clare, is dead, can the General reveal that Agnes is actually his niece, placed in his protection by her dying mother, who had not even revealed her true identity to her own daughter.
Melrose sends a servant to Lady Mary, to deliver the happy news of Harley's forthcoming union with Agnes. Moncrass also writes to Lady Mary, explaining the whole sad story of his sister: her deception of her friend Victoire, her elopement and marriage, her difficult relationship with her husband, James Douglas, their life abroad and the birth of young Agnes. After long periods on her own, James' wife finally discovered that he had undertaken a bigamous marriage to Lady Mary, in England, under his real name of James Neville. Moncrass is distressed to have to point out to Lady Mary that this makes Agnes the heiress to Neville's fortune, not Julia. His secrecy about the whole matter was for his wife's sake, as well as for his dying twin sister. He invites Lady Mary to join the wedding party the following Thursday.
Wedding preparations at Belle-Vue are happily under way, involving Caroline Butler, Father Dominick, Major Melrose and, of course, the General himself. Agnes writes to the Abbess, describing her own strange uneasiness, despite her great love of Harley. She requests, and receives, a blessing for the marriage from St Lawrens. The marriage ceremony is performed, and a post-wedding concert is in full swing, when documents arrive from Lady Mary, proving that Harley is actually the illegitimate son of Miss Woodburn and….James Neville! Harley rushes off in despair and Agnes’s brain becomes fevered from the clash between her horror at the incestuous match and her tormented love for her missing half-brother.
A little later, Agnes recovers enough to renounce her claim to the Neville money in favour of Julia, and to plan a return to her convent in France. However, the discovery of a suicide note and then of Harley's drowned body causes a relapse into brain fever. She is lovingly nursed at Belle-Vue by Reuben's bride, Julia, among others, but she later leaps the ha-ha, only to die beside Harley's moonlit grave.
A sad family group escorts Agnes's corpse to the French convent, where the dying Abbess laments the curses which burden children of the wicked. She gives a miniature triple portrait of herself and both Agneses to young Reuben Moncrass. Leonora de Vallmont bids farewell, as she is staying at the convent, despite Melrose's earlier offer of marriage. The Major sadly reflects on how sexual fidelity could have prevented such tragic results, but he is later cheered by Caroline Butler, who brings him an invitation to Christmas festivities. He is also delighted to be introduced to her little son, who bears the name of her adored brother……..Edward Harley.