Summary of The Corinna of England, and A Heroine In The Shade: A Modern Romance, attributed to Mrs E.M. Foster
2 Vols (1809)
The novel opens with an account of a journey undertaken by eighteen-year-old Mary Cuthbert. She is a beautiful young orphan who must leave her home in Somerset to travel to the Coventry area. Just before he died, her father, as her only remaining family member, had consigned Mary to the care of a relation who lives near Coventry. Mary feels nervous about the long stage-coach journey to the home of Clarissa Moreton, her twenty-two-year old cousin, and now also her guardian. On the third day of her journey, Mary is embarrassed to find that she is to share the coach with two young gentlemen who interrupt their conversation to gaze at her in open admiration.
Frederic Montgomery and Captain Charles Walwyn, the two appreciative young men, resume their conversation about Walwyn’s friend and society hostess whom they are about to visit. The subject of their conversation is apparently a young woman of many talents, who shows a particular interest in the theatre. Later, Mary is very surprised to learn that this hostess is none other than her unknown cousin, the owner of the Attic Villa! All three young people are startled to find themselves thus linked by their impending visit to Miss Moreton’s residence. Mary suddenly bursts into tears because she is overwhelmed by the prospect of a cousin who apparently keeps a very liberal house. Walwyn attempts to soothe Mary’s fears by giving his friend Montgomery a glowing account of Clarissa Moreton’s virtues, but Montgomery can sense that Mary still feels very uneasy.
On arrival, Mary and her two companions are warmly greeted by their hostess, and are led into an elegant apartment, lit by Grecian lamps, where several house-guests are assembled. There is a hugely ornate portrait of Miss Moreton in a prominent position on one wall. Mary is introduced to a singer, Signora Grosera, and her friend, Monsieur Myrtilla. Mr Copy is presented to Mary as an artist, Mr Germ as a botanical researcher and the Chevalier D’Aubert as a French refugee who is now a long-term resident in the villa.
Montgomery feels uncomfortable on Mary’s behalf because he feels that the group of people in the house would not be acceptable to the local gentry. He guesses that his friend Walwyn is a rival of D’Aubert’s for the hand of the wealthy Clarissa, but Montgomery's own sights are set on higher things - namely, his vocation as a clergyman.
Mary is also aware that the ethos of the house is unlikely to impress their more conventional neighbours, and she feels it will be hard to follow her beloved father’s code of behaviour in such a house. In addition, she is troubled by feeling very tongue-tied and awkward in her cousin’s dynamic presence.
Mary feels a little brighter next morning after a friendly chat with the maid, Kitty, who tells her about a converted chapel in the villa’s grounds which now serves as a theatre. Mary then settles down to some sewing which she undertakes with private tears of homesickness. She has to conceal her distress quickly when she is surprised by a visit from Mrs Deborah Moreton, Clarissa’s aunt, who lives nearby. It soon becomes evident that old Mrs Moreton deeply disapproves of her niece’s way of life and considers her behaviour to be scandalous. Mary, however, is much more to her liking and Mrs Moreton compliments her on her evident good manners.
Mrs Moreton subsequently joins the company for dinner and is pleased by the deportment of Mary and also of Montgomery. However, the old lady privately scolds her niece for unseemly behaviour with D’Aubert. This criticism is counter-productive, as Clarissa promptly launches into a public affirmation of the Spirits of Sentiment and doing virtually whatever she feels like! Montgomery is shocked and very much concerned for Mary’s future welfare. Clarissa misinterprets his discomfort as love for herself, which she promptly decides to return.
When a tearful Mary retires for prayer that night, her window suddenly shatters as a racquet falls into the bedroom. Kitty informs her that it belongs to Germ, who was trying to knock down a bat flying in front of her window. Mary finds this incident quite amusing and enjoys Kitty’s humorous comments about Germ.
Next morning, Mary meets a distressed young woman, Sarah Jarvis, when on a walk in the parkland. Sarah is wife to William, an estate worker, and mother to four young children. William broke his thigh when working on the conversion of the chapel to a theatre, but Miss Moreton has only provided him with a cushion as compensation! Mary presses money into the baby’s fist and promises further help. On her way back to the villa she meets Montgomery and they enjoy each other’s company, sharing their responses to the other guests. Montgomery encourages Mary to stay true to her own heart before the young couple join the rest of the party at the breakfast table.
The conversation at this meal is as pretentious as ever, with particular emphasis on Mme de Staël’s novel, Delphine (1802). Clarissa disagrees with Montgomery’s criticism of the book’s morality, but she much admires his powers of self-expression. However, Montgomery is increasingly uncomfortable in Clarissa’s company, and an incident involving her drinking cider at an inn hardens his resolve to leave the villa very soon.
On Sunday, Montgomery enjoys going to the local church, then joining Mary and the delightful Clara Davenport at Mrs Moreton’s house, and subsequently having the chance to escort Mary back to the villa. It is with a heavy heart that he tells Mary of his plan to leave next day and this news is unhappily received by both a restrained Mary and, later, by a far more expressive Clarissa. Typically, his hostess decides that Montgomery must be leaving because he cannot control his passion for her.
After Montgomery’s departure, Mary‘s loneliness is somewhat eased by her new friendship with Clara Davenport, a nineteen-year-old orphaned heiress who is much admired for her dignity and generosity. Clara is so high-principled that she has broken off her relationship with her fiancé, Captain Lesly Walsingham, because she discovered he was not a committed Christian. Mrs Moreton fervently wishes that her young friend Clara Davenport were a model for Clarissa’s behaviour, but Clarissa is now reading Mme de Staël’s Corinna (1809), and her conduct is becoming even wilder.
One fine morning, Clarissa, or ‘Corinna’ as she now styles herself, asks the Chevalier D’Aubert, Germ and Mary to join her for a drive in the barouche. At Coventry, Clarissa decides to address the crowds who are present for the renactment of Lady Godiva’s historic ride. She then proceeds to berate the workers for earning money by making ribbons when they should be artists and poets. This speech gains a rowdy and rather mixed reception from the crowds, who escort the carriage back to the villa. D’Aubert and Germ are much alarmed by the people’s hostility which is particularly directed against Frenchmen, and Mary faints with the terror of it all. ‘Corinna’ is convinced that Montgomery would admire her courage with the drunken rioters. She feels proud that her words have completely disrupted work at Coventry the following day, but she is shaken when rioters return to ransack the villa in order to capture the Frenchman, and D’Aubert only just manages to escape.
Mary has sustained a minor head wound in the affray, and Corinna is annoyed to find her cousin upset and agitated about the whole situation. Reluctantly, Mary agrees to accompany Corinna on another journey, this time to visit a sick friend. Mrs Moreton assumes that this visit is to an elderly relative and wishes Mary well on the trip, but in fact Corinna takes Mary to a distant military barracks in order to visit none other than Captain Walwyn.
The captain has written a drunkenly affectionate letter to Corinna, claiming, with some accuracy, to feel unwell. Corinna immediately decided to make a mercy dash to Walwyn, in order to be there at his death and therefore seem heroic to Montgomery. She took Mary with her in order to keep her away from the influence of Mrs Moreton and Miss Davenport.
Mary is horrified by the rough behaviour of the soldiers, and Walwyn himself is almost as taken aback by Corinna's dramatic entrance. There is plenty of derisive comment from Walwyn's colleagues, and Mary is desperate to escape, but their carriage has already left. The two ladies are led into a chilly little room where the men still cause a distraction outside. Finally, an officer appears to take the ladies away from the unhealthy chamber to the guardroom, where a chaise collects them and takes them, escorted by Captain Walsingham, to an inn at the nearby town.
Corinna has been badly frightened by the thought of contagious illness spreading from the chilly little room in the barracks. Mary kindly tries to calm her, and a visit from the doctor next day eventually convinces Corinna that she is not in fact ill. Walwyn and Walsingham arrive to visit her, and Mary is very uncomfortable about being asked to divert Walsingham's attention while Walwyn sees Corinna in her bedroom alone. Mary sends apologies to Walsingham and retires to her own room.
As Walwyn has been much encouraged by Corinna's mercy dash to be with him, he decides to seize the opportunity to propose marriage to her. She confounds him by her indignant refusal and her declaration that it is Montgomery whom she loves. Walwyn leaves the inn cursing, and Corinna is so agitated by the confrontation that she sends for Mary, only to discover that her cousin is unconscious, struck down by the fever. Doctor Saville is summoned again and confirms that Mary is very ill indeed. Corinna is in a great hurry to escape this situation, and she leaves money with Saville and instructions in a note to Walsingham before quitting the inn and the risk of catching any infection.
Lesly Walsingham, however, is an honourable young man who swiftly takes over responsibility for Mary's well-being. He is the same gentleman who was once loved by Clara Davenport and, as he watches over the unconscious Mary, he wonders if he could win his delicate patient's love instead. However, Saville tells him that Mary is dying. Both men look down sadly at the stricken Mary as a kindly nurse tends to her, and they hear her troubled ramblings about disgrace and redemption. Walsingham is greatly moved by her piety and begins to feel the truth of Christianity in his heart.
Meanwhile, back in the villa, Corinna writes a passionate letter to Montgomery which barely conceals her ardour for him. He reads the letter at Elmsly, where he is coping with his beloved father's death, and misinterprets her words as relating to Mary's feelings for him. Thus, his somewhat incoherent reply holds a note of encouragement which Corinna immediately reads as ardour returned. Montgomery is absorbed in caring for his distressed mother and his siblings at the parsonage, so he is utterly disconcerted when Corinna suddenly bursts upon the scene in order to comfort the grieving family. Montgomery is then shocked by the agitation her visit causes to his family, and is deeply disturbed to realise that Walwyn is no longer her preferred choice of husband.
Montgomery receives a further blow when he learns that Corinna has deserted a desperately ill Mary near Walwyn's barracks. This news infuriates him so much that he roundly condemns Corinna and commands her to leave. She reminds him of his encouraging letter but he quickly explains his mistaken interpretation and walks out on his hysterical visitor. When he returns to the house, he retreats to his study and writes a letter to Mrs Moreton, asking for immediate help to be sent to Mary. Once Corinna has been put to bed by his long-suffering mother, Montgomery has a chance to explain everything, including his passion for the critically ill Mary.
Meanwhile, Mary is at last beginning to recover, and receives Clara Davenport's unexpected mercy visit with great joy. (Mrs Moreton has despatched her young friend to collect Mary, on receipt of Montgomery's note.) A happy reunion between Clara and Lesly Walsingham takes place at Mary's bedside, and his newfound Christian faith makes their marriage possible at last. Within a week, the three young people return to Coventry, and provide comfort to Mrs Moreton when she hears devastating news of Corinna's fate in London, via a letter from Myrtilla.
Apparently, Corinna was entertaining a group of friends to supper after a theatre visit when a neighbouring London playhouse caught fire. Corinna and her friend Lauzune climbed to the top of their building to watch the flames but then found themselves trapped. Lauzune jumped successfully to safety but tragically Corinna fell to her death. A grieving Mrs Moreton passes on Corinna's fortune to Mary and advises her to use it to aid parishioners in the care of a fine clergyman, meaning, of course, Montgomery. Mary happily takes this advice, and the story ends with two newly wed couples - the Montgomerys and the Walsinghams - enjoying the blessings of their virtuous unions.