Summary of Simple Facts: The History of an Orphan
by Mrs Mathews
2 volumes (1798)
The novel opens with a description of the matrimonial happiness enjoyed by Mr and Mrs Harcourt as they bring up their two sons, Joseph and Henry, and subsequently, after a twelve year gap, their delightful daughter, Maria.
This domestic bliss is tragically cut short one day when Mrs Harcourt takes her children to play with those of Lady Palmer, an old friend. While the children are playing, news arrives that Mr Harcourt has slipped into the river and drowned. The distraught Mrs Harcourt and her son[s?] leave the Grove to return home, but Maria remains temporarily in the care of Lady Palmer.
At first, the four-year-old is happy enough to play with the Palmer daughter and little Charles (aged eleven and nine respectively), but once she is told that there is bad news about her father, she becomes extremely distressed. When little Maria is later told that her father has died, she wants to return home immediately; but as her mother is unconscious with shock, she remains with Lady Palmer.
Eventually Mrs Harcourt recovers her senses, and is even calm enough to count her remaining blessings. This happier news is conveyed to Lady Palmer by Dr Johnson, who expresses anxiety over Maria’s future. Young Charles promptly announces that when he goes to India in eight years’ time, he will make his fortune by working with his uncle, the Governor, and he will give half the money to Maria. This generous declaration is much admired by all who hear it.
The day arrives when Maria is brought home by Lady Palmer and has an emotional reunion with her mother. Mrs Harcourt places Maria under the financial protection of her brothers, who promise to take care of their little sister, and she makes sure that Maria receives detailed moral instruction before she gradually allows her own life to ebb away.
Despite her grief, Maria is bravely resigned to taking up residence at her uncle’s house. Lady Palmer soon realises, however, that the arrangement is not working out well for Maria, and she steps in to provide a permanent home for the child in her own family. Lady Palmer makes the formal arrangements with Maria’s brother, Joseph, who has just married a cantankerous young woman. The younger brother, Henry, is living in Bath and promises an eventual home for his young sister, should she require it.
Maria’s education progresses rapidly in the Palmer household and she thrives, particularly under the tender care of young Charles. When Sir Thomas Palmer, Charles’s elder brother, leaves university to set out on [the Grand Tour?] his tour of Europe, Charles takes his place at Oxford, returning home for the holidays. Without quite realising what is happening, Charles and Maria begin to fall in love. When Charles eventually seizes the chance to propose, Maria faints with shock. Once she regains consciousness, she laments the fact that, as a poor orphan, she can never be acceptable as his wife. Charles assures her that his future income in India will give him the right to marry whomsoever he chooses. There is just time for them to confirm their mutual love before their privacy is interrupted by the arrival of Lady Palmer and her daughter. Three days later, a snatched conversation in the garden confirms their mutual devotion, and in due course Charles returns to Oxford, assured of Maria’s lasting affection.
Meanwhile, Maria’s relationship with her elder brother and his wife is troubled by young Mrs Harcourt’s jealousy. However, her other brother, Henry, is happily married and now writes to Maria to renew his promise of a home there, whenever it is needed. Much to his sister’s distress, this letter results in Lady Palmer accepting Henry’s offer on Maria’s behalf, and the necessary financial arrangements are briskly completed. Maria’s departure from the Palmer household is very painful for her, but at seventeen years of age, she sets off bravely on the journey to Bath and her brother’s home.
From the Bath coach, an old gentleman who is a fellow traveller points out to her a strange little hut and a tall young man standing outside it. Maria is told that he has lived in the hut for about a year, is secretive about his past and has linen marked ‘W S’, which seems odd when he claims that his name is John Moor. Apparently, the neighbours are very intrigued by him, speculating that he may be an American spy or an escaped murderer. Maria guesses that he may have been crossed in love, but a female fellow traveller paints a scenario of a good Catholic doing penance for some great sin, as instructed by his priest. This idea causes amusement among the other passengers, but the woman defends her position that a priest can provide a valuable sense of spiritual direction in certain lives. The conversation is then interrupted by the coach’s arrival in Bath, where Maria is joyfully reunited with her brother.
Maria soon settles into her brother’s household and is pleased to be told by the couple that she need not hasten to find a position as a governess. Maria begins to relax, and soon she is a welcome performer at the Harcourt musical evenings where she meets Mrs Harcourt’s brother, the bass player, whose name is Dr Curtis.
Dr Curtis promptly falls in love with Maria and tells Henry about his feelings. Henry relays his proposal of marriage to Maria privately and is surprised when his sister firmly rejects the offer. Maria later tells her brother of her love for Charles and he is understanding about the situation.
Henry now arranges for Maria to become a paid companion to the majestic Miss Scot, and this arrangement works out extremely well. Maria soon meets most of the visiting nobility in Bath and far outshines other society ladies, such as Mrs Prattle and Miss Andrews. It soon transpires that Maria has even attracted the attentions of Sir Richard Harlow, albeit unintentionally.
Sir Richard begins to call regularly at Miss Scot’s residence, but Maria is far from enthusiastic about his devotion. Her beauty and intelligence arouse the jealousy of other women, and Miss Scot is puzzled why Maria is not triumphant about her conquest. Eventually, Maria tells her friend and employer the story of her commitment to Charles, and Miss Scot promises a story about her own romantic life in return. Like Henry, Miss Scot is understanding, but also concerned about Charles’s long-term reliability.
At the Bath [public] rooms, Maria continues to be much admired, and Miss Scot’s uncle, Mr Worthy, is very proud of his niece’s young companion. Maria is then introduced to Lord and Lady D, and Maria strikes up an instant friendship with the wife, who is Miss Scot’s sister. This new friendship is much more welcome to Maria than Sir Richard’s persistent advances.
Maria then receives a gloriously welcome visit from Charles, en route for India. The two young people treasure their precious time together and Charles is later delighted to meet Miss Scot, Mr Worthy and Maria’s brother. Henry promises to look after his sister for Charles and also to help with the letters which will pass between India and England. The dreaded moment arrives when the young couple must part, and Miss Scot does her utmost to support poor Maria, mentioning that she herself has lost the love of her life forever. Next morning, Maria is told the sad story of this broken romance.
Miss Scot explains that as an orphaned young heiress, she was once courted by Sir William Warren, but she chose to reject him. She then fell in love with young Mr Spencer, son of Lord F, and the happy couple soon announced their engagement. However, a mysterious young stranger called on Miss Scot in order to tell her privately that she was already married to Mr Spencer, but had been rejected by him. Miss Scot was horrified and immediately broke off her engagement with Mr Spencer, left for her sister’s house and fell into a fever which developed into depressive illness. She gradually recovered, thanks to the loving care of her sister, but sought the solitude of the woods to calm her grieving heart.
Here, early one morning, she encountered a lame man who told her a sad story of believing lies about his fiancée’s infidelity and consequently rejecting her. Miss Scot was sympathetic when he ended his tragic tale with the death of his innocent fiancée, but she still approved of his rejection of his sweetheart, given the grounds he had to consider her unfaithful. The lame man was very agitated by Miss Scot’s response and when she later thinks over her own behaviour, Miss Scot realises that she should have been less hasty in condemning her own fiancé without proof of his guilt.
Miss Scot subsequently learnt that the allegations made against Mr Spencer were totally false, but a two-year search for the missing William Spencer by his loving father and others has availed nothing. Maria can now announce that she knows where he is to be found - in a small hut near the coach path to Bath!
The two lovers are soon reunited, and the lame stranger turns out to have been William, testing out secretly whether his Amelia had begun to regret her actions. It is with great joy that the couple are wed, and Maria is now a beloved member of each sister’s household - Lady D’s and Mrs Spencer’s. The warmth of their love for her is a comfort when she longs for Charles, and
provides great consolation when her brother Henry dies of a fever and she herself needs to be nursed back to health. The ailing Lord F, Mr Spencer’s father, is particularly good to Maria, giving her part of his family’s jewellery collection along with his devotion.
Maria learns from Henry’s widow that Sir Richard is still passionate about her, while Charles’s passion may be abating, as no letters have arrived. Mrs Harcourt invites Maria to supper and Maria considers her behaviour to be suspicious; her fears are confirmed when Maria finds herself being kidnapped on her short walk home. Maria vehemently tries to protect her honour as Sir Richard sweeps her away in his carriage, but he is determined to have her in his power. After a journey of many hours, they arrive at a mansion enclosed within a park. Maria’s hysteria over her capture results in eight days of unconsciousness, followed by a lingering illness.
Sir Richard ‘s obsessive love for her only just stops short of seduction, and Maria lives through several weeks in great fear and trepidation. However, advice from the ghost of her dead brother leads her to consent to join Sir Richard at the local church where he hopes they will be married. The time and date are fixed and a small number of guests are invited, including the Spencers. Their suspicions about Maria’s unwilling consent to this arrangement are soon confirmed. Maria seizes the classic moment of opportunity in the ceremony to announce she has been held captive for four months by the would-be groom! She is promptly entrusted to the Spencers’ care by the Dean and at last she is able to return to her former way of life.
Happiness is not totally restored, however, as there are no letters from Charles but no shortage of gossip about the alliance with Sir Richard, including false rumours of his suicide. Financially, however, things are looking much brighter, as news comes through that Charles is now very rich and Maria herself is left a fortune in Lord F’s will. Lady Palmer and Maria correspond by letter, and it is clear that Maria’s reputation is not tarnished but rather enhanced, because she has established her virtue and constancy.
Charles finally returns just in time to rescue his sweetheart from a house fire. All the various relatives are joyfully reunited in celebration of the ensuing wedding. The young couple’s steadfastness and virtue are publicly celebrated, and their happiness is felt by all to be richly deserved.