Rachel Hunter, The Unexpected Legacy (1804)
Plot summary by Olivia Thompson
After a preface in which the virtues and vices of novel-writing are discussed, the narrator, Mrs Sedley, describes her arrival in Derbyshire, where she has inherited the estate of Gertrude Underwood, a distant relation. This bequest has come as a surprise to Mrs Sedley, because the donor (her mother's cousin) was not on good terms with her relatives, and also because there exists a beloved young woman who has been living with Mrs Underwood for two years. Mrs Sedley is embarrassed to learn that the young lady, Mrs Paulin, is supposedly a widow, with a fine little boy.
Mrs Sedley stays at the house of her relative's lawyer, where Mr and Mrs Hampden are friendly hosts. Next morning, Mr Hampden brings Mrs Sedley to Rickland Farm, where she is greeted without enthusiasm by the servant, Jonathan. Mrs Sedley wishes that she had not inherited the property and was back home living on her fifty guineas a quarter, instead of having to deal with resentful dependents. She is then introduced to the mournful Mary Paulin, her young son, and the dog, Sappo. Mrs Underwood's will is read out and ‘Mary Pauline Murray’ is bequeathed five hundred pounds. Other bequests are thoughtfully bestowed and Mrs Sedley is named as joint executor, as well as chief beneficiary.
Mrs Sedley quickly settles in, winning over both Jonathan and the cook, Mrs Becket, as well as the dog. Within a few weeks, however, Mrs Paulin starts to arrange alternative lodgings, being discomforted by Mrs Sedley's unspoken belief that the boy, Sigismund, is an unplanned son. A visit from a friendly old neighbour, Major Oldcastle, with his dog, Leo, interrupts Mrs Sedley's attempts to reassure Mrs Paulin. That night, Mrs Sedley reflects that it now seems most unlikely that Sigismund and Mrs Paulin are related, given the total absence of family resemblance.
Next day, ‘Pauline’ tells Mrs Sedley about Mrs Underwood's treasured advisor, Mr Furnival, and explains some details about Mrs Underwood' s past. Pauline then presents her own life history, originally prepared for Mrs Underwood, to Mrs Sedley.
Pauline describes her childhood. She was adopted by her godmother, Miss Maisin, whose fiancé, Monsieur du Rivage, acted as her godfather. The infant Pauline was brought up by her loving nurse, supported by her godmother, and encouraged by the nurse's lame daughter, Tabitha. Little Pauline disliked home visits and rarely met her sister Becky (Mrs Budgely) or her mother's favourite daughter, Judith, who had an unrequited passion for their doctor, a young man named Hawksbury. Eventually, Pauline was taken to Paris by her godparents, now married. Her next six years were happy ones, with a secure financial future, lovingly planned out for her and to be administered by Mr Furnival. Because of this, Pauline was left out of her father's will, and so had little sense of belonging to her family.
As this is the period of the French Revolution, social life is restricted; but the romantic Pauline still manages to fall in love with one of their regular English visitors, the handsome Mr Middleton. Her love is not returned and she becomes miserable. Her godmother's illness and the longer absences of Mr Middleton depress her still further. Mr Middleton eventually announces his departure for Nice, and it is clear to the family that he has serious personal problems elsewhere. Monsieur du Rivage stays in Paris, but sends his ailing wife and grieving god-daughter to their country retreat in La Fontaine, under the care of three loyal servants. One of these servants, Catharine, is a close friend of the neighbouring Duke's servant, Claudine. Thus Pauline learns family details: of the wicked Duc de Fouclaut and his debauched activities at his home, l'Eclair; and, of his beautiful daughter, Marianne.
When Madame du Rivage dies, her heart-broken husband decides to sell his country house, arranging that Pauline stays in close touch with Claudine. Jeanneton Meunier, Claudine's daughter, is nursing a lovely child, delivered to the house by Marianne de Fouclaut. Pauline learns from Claudine that Marianne is to be forced to marry a rich old man, and that she is guarded by Mademoiselle Babet. (Mme Babet is attracted to Simon, Claudine's son.) Pauline wants to help Marianne, but no suitable occasion arises. Her godfather visits, to say that she is to return to England with an English family, the Wilmots.
After this visit, Pauline meets a distraught Marianne in the garden and receives from her a casket, before Marianne plunges back to the chateau. Pauline is later told by a Paris guard that Marianne, her father and her lover, de Bene, have been taken to the Abbaye prison in Paris. When Pauline subsequently opens the casket, she finds various precious objects, including a diamond-framed portrait of Middleton, who is named as Sigismund's father. The marriage between Marianne and Middleton is certified by a priest, du Clos, and witnessed by Nicolas and Jeanneton Meunier, and one Frederic Boothby. [??]There is also a small portrait of a lady called Charlotte Aimsworth. Marianne's memoirs are enclosed and tell of her difficult childhood, her time under the care of Sister Maria in a convent school, and her friendship with a fellow pupil, Charlotte. Marianne proceeds to explain, in writing, how her father then established her in the convent's best rooms, where she was pressurised into forming a relationship with de Bene. She remained in close touch with Charlotte, who was about to marry Mr Hamilton, and she was befriended by the visiting Aimsworth family, including Charlotte's cousin, Middleton. Marianne fell in love with Middleton, but Jeanneton and Nicolas warned her that she was soon to be married to de Bene. Mrs Aimsworth discreetly informed Marianne that Middleton returned her feelings, and the two young lovers were married in secret.
Marianne concealed her subsequent pregnancy from her father by feigning illness. Middleton had to visit his sick uncle in Nice, but Marianne felt she must stay to help her father, who had landed himself in danger from powerful enemies. Marianne managed to give birth secretly, and her son was placed in the care of Jeanneton and Nicolas. Her father insisted that Marianne return with him and de Bene to l'Eclair, where she was to be supervised by Mademoiselle Babet. Marianne was warned by a stranger, Clement, that she must escape her approaching imprisonment, and arranged that she would hand over the casket to Pauline and ensure her son's safety before her inevitable death. As there had been no correspondence from Middleton, now presumed dead, Marianne had lost her will to live.
Pauline is saddened by this story, particularly as she herself loved [loves?]Middleton. Nobly, she determines to care for Marianne's son. She meets up with the Wilmots and their spirited daughter, Anna, who is in love with 'le bon citoyen' Boudier. Anna takes Pauline's side when Nicolas and Jeanneton Meunier bring Sigismund to Pauline. Anna's mother has decided that the child must be Pauline's, but Anna accepts the truth and despises her mother's small-minded suspicions. Anna also helps Pauline by persuading Broudier to deliver a secret letter of comfort to Marianne.
The party set off on a stormy voyage to England and, during the trip, the two young ladies meet an adventuress, ‘Mrs Whaley’, who later reveals that she has previously nursed Sigismund and has acquired a book belonging to Pauline. This woman confirms Mrs Wilmot's low opinion of Pauline's morals. Pauline is, however, relieved to find herself and Sigismund lovingly received at Mr Furnival's house in London.
Mr Furnival arranges matters so that Pauline can visit her London relations; the Wilmots' unexpected visit extends this gathering. Pauline's sister, Judith, much admires Middleton's portrait. Mr Furnival assures Pauline's mother that he is du Rivages's appointed guardian for Pauline and he will protect her from the malicious gossip of family and society. Much later, Pauline meets Anna again and learns that her friend has secretly married Broudier and is now pregnant. Anna's parents take her back to France and Pauline, saddened by this separation, prepares for her journey, with Sigismund, to visit Doctor Hawksbury and his wife. Pauline is shocked to find herself to be the subject of general neighbourhood gossip, so Mr Furnival moves her up to Derbyshire, to stay with his old friends, the Hampdens. Pauline's account of her life, written for Mrs Underwood, finishes at this point.
Pauline now updates her story by telling Mrs Sedley that the fate of her godfather in Paris is still unknown. She does know that, thanks to Anna's Broudier, Marianne would have been informed that Sigismund had a safe passage to England. She also knows, through a cold letter from Charlotte Hamilton, that Middleton's family believes that Marianne exploited him cruelly; he is now languishing somewhere in Europe. Pauline then remembers a visit to Matlock with the Hampdens where she unexpectedly encountered the awful ‘Mrs Whaley’ again and subsequently decided to be more of a recluse, in the face of unpleasant rumours about Sigismund's conception. She ends the conversation by declaring her gratitude to Mrs Sedley for her motherly protection.
Mrs Sedley now takes up the story and explains how a French emigrant priest has told Furnival about the death of an old man whose prayer book he has; Pauline sadly confirms that it was her godfather's book. Mrs Sedley now decides that Pauline needs recovery time, so Sigismund is sent off to kindly young relatives of the Hampdens, who live in Grantham, while Pauline is brought to London. Their servant brings them a limping emigrant from France, who turns out to be the widowed Nicolas Meunier. Nicolas tells the terrible story of the scene in the Abbaye prison, where he finds the corpse of the violated Marianne beside her father's lifeless body. (The shock of this death costs Meunier the lives of Jeanetton and his new-born child.) Nicholas later meets Clement, de Bene's servant, and learns of the wicked disruption and distortion of correspondence between Marianne and her husband, their family members and concerned supporters. Clement's actions succeed in dishonouring Marianne, just as de Bene had wished, but Clement later feels guilty about his bribed actions, and tries to make amends. He goes to warn Marianne of her imminent capture but he cannot stop her arrest and he later hears her being murdered in prison. Nicolas's account ends with his expressing gratitude to Mr Furnival for his care and support.
Mrs Sedley now tells of how a shopping trip results in Pauline meeting up with her family again. Over a morning visit with Mrs Budgeley, Pauline's sister, gossip about Anna Wilmot is relayed, but there is also happier news of Judith's recent marriage to a clergyman named Maitland. Later, Mrs Sedley and Mr Furnival discuss Pauline's unspoken love for Middleton and plan together how she might find marital happiness.
Once the party has returned to Derbyshire, Mr Hampden introduces Mr St Clare, a dejected young man who is in mourning for his uncle. Eventually, St Clare reveals that he knows Charlotte Aimsworth, now Mrs Hamilton, who was deceived by her friend Marianne - the cause of Middleton's death. Pauline is shocked, but Mrs Sedley comforts her, and Pauline's papers are handed over to St Clare, for reading at Aimsworth Castle. St Clare subsequently writes to Mrs Sedley, explaining the details of his life-long friendship with the orphaned Middleton. He explains how his friend married Marianne secretly in Paris, and then went to Nice to be with his uncle; the pregnant Marianne was supposed to have followed with her father.
Middleton is deceived by Clement's false correspondence and his health fails. While ill in Grenoble, he is visited by Clement and learns of Marianne's last messages, via Clement, to ensure Sigismund's safely with Charlotte. Clement later finds out from Meunier that Sigismund is safely in England, but Middleton does not know this yet. He dies, obsessed with the welfare of his son, comforted by indications that Pauline has rescued the child and kept him safe.
Hamilton and St Clare follow Sigismund's trail, but obtain no further information from the dying Clement in Paris. Hamilton then returns to Ireland, leaving his family temporarily with his father-in-law, and St Clare returns to his mother in Cornwall, before departing to stay with friends in Derbyshire. The various investigations have shown the truth about Pauline's rescue of Sigismund and the boy is invited to stay at Aimsworth Castle for a month, while warm gratitude is expressed to Pauline.
When Sigismund returns, Frederic St Clare and Pauline have been awarded money through Middleton's will, to take care of Sigismund, and they cement their partnership through marriage. Mrs Sedley later learns that the widowed Anna Wilmot is in Ireland and her son has been adopted by Meunier. Dear Mr Furnival dies and leaves money to Pauline and to Mrs Hampden; Mrs Sedley gains a picture from her beloved old friend.
Mrs Sedley takes her leave of her audience, hoping that the reader will not despise her for a lack of wisdom but will, like her, have ‘peace and harmony of mind’.