Act I, scene 1
The action begins in April, 1809. The setting is Sidley Park, the Derbyshire, England, estate of the Coverly family. Thirteen-year-old Thomasina Coverly is studying with her tutor, the young Septimus Hodge, in a large room facing a garden. Thomasina is exceptionally intelligent for her age, and her current project is a search for proof of Fermat's last theorem, an algebraic conundrum that has perplexed mathematicians since the seventeenth century. Meanwhile, Septimus is reading ‘‘The Couch of Eros,'' a particularly horrible poem written by one of the manor's current guests, Ezra Chater.
Thomasina has an insatiable curiosity, and her main interest for the day, other than her math lesson, is in a phrase she overheard: ‘‘carnal embrace.’’ Septimus comically tries to spare his young pupil the adult explanation and convince her that it simply means ‘‘hugging a side of beef,’’ but Thomasina is not fooled. She overheard some of the house staff talking about Mrs. Chater, who was discovered in ‘‘carnal embrace’’ in the gazebo. Septimus relents and explains the alternate meaning of the phrase (‘‘sexual congress’’); he does not admit, however, that he was the culprit embracing Mrs. Chater in the garden.
As the two resume their studies, Jellaby, the manor's butler, delivers a note from Mr. Chater, calling upon Septimus to meet him immediately to fight a duel over the honor of his wife. Septimus slips Mr. Chater's invitation into the pages of ‘‘The Couch of Eros’’ and returns a message suggesting he will be available later that day, after his lesson with Thomasina. Undeterred, the enraged Chater bursts in, demanding satisfaction. Chater is boisterous, passionate, and vain but not very bright. Septimus sends Thomasina from the room, then disarms the cuckholded husband by flattering his poetry and praising his wife. He admits making love to the woman but convinces Chater that she did it out of loyalty, in order to persuade Septimus to write a glowing review of her husband's poetry. Septimus lavishes compliments on Chater's writing and promises to publish a review that will make him one of England's most prized poets—though not if he is forced to kill him in a duel. Chater is fooled—and so excited at his good fortune that he inscribes Septimus's copy of his book with the words, ‘‘To my friend Septimus Hodge, who stood up and gave his best on behalf of the Author—Ezra Chater, at Sidley Park, Derbyshire, April 10th, 1809.’’ (Chater's note between the pages of the book, and his inscription inside the cover, become important clues in the mystery that unfolds later in the play.)
As the two men settle their compact, other members of the household burst into the room, arguing loudly. Lady Croom and her brother, Captain Brice, are protesting the plans of Richard Noakes, a landscape architect who Lord Croom has hired to refashion the grounds of Sidley Park. Noakes has assembled a series of watercolor paintings that depict the gardens of the country house "before" and "after" his recommended treatment. At the moment the gardens are a vision of classical splendor—trees neatly and symmetrically grouped on the hillside and a lake surrounded by meadows ‘‘on which the right amount of sheep are tastefully arranged.’’ Noakes's new design transforms Sidley Park into a Gothic wilderness—the Romantic style of the era—complete with gloomy forests, artificial ruins, rampant briars, and a rustic hermitage. Lady Croom and Captain Brice are mortified but young Thomasina, who heard the commotion and returned to the room, judges Noakes's scheme perfect.
The sound of gunfire is heard outside, where the poet Lord Byron is hunting with Lord Croom and his young son, Augustus Coverly. The group marches out of the room to meet the hunters and continue debating the transformation of the Croom estate, leaving Septimus and Thomasina alone again. Innocently, she draws a picture of a hermit in Noakes's hermitage and hands Septimus a note from Mrs. Chater, which he reads then inserts into the pages of ‘‘The Couch of Eros.’’ (Both the drawing and the note also become essential clues later in the play.) Act I, scene 2
The next scene takes place nearly two centuries later, at the present day Sidley Park. The room remains the same but its inhabitants...
(The entire section is 1785 words.)
Act II, scene 5
Bernard's theory about Lord Byron has rocketed from speculation to spectacular find in a single afternoon. Armed with the "facts" he has been provided by Hannah, Valentine, and the books in the Coverlys' library, he has already prepared a lecture he plans to read at the Byron Society, prior to publishing his version of history in pursuit of wealth and academic fame. He reads the lecture to the smitten Chloe, who listens adoringly; to Valentine, who listens semi-attentively while feeding his turtle; and to Hannah, who punctuates his address with continuous objections to his findings. In the end, she warns him, ‘‘You'll end up with so much fame you won't leave the house without a paper bag over your head.’’
In the course of arguing about his research, Bernard manages to offend everyone in the house except Hannah, who knows his insults and intellectual bullying are only tools of rhetoric—he uses them to win points, not to seriously hurt people. Bernard packs up his research and heads off to town in a cab, promising to return that evening to accompany Chloe to the costume party. On his way out he drops another piece of Hannah's puzzle in her hands: a small book, written in 1832, that describes the hermit of Sidley Park and his pet tortoise, Plautus. She adds this to a letter she found, announcing the death of the hermit at the age of twenty-seven, and is more convinced than ever that the hermit and Septimus Hodge are one and the same, but she has yet to find the final clue that will prove it.
Act II, scene 6
The briefest scene of the play describes how the events of 1809 came to a climax in the middle of the night at Sidley Park. It is early in the morning, just before dawn, and Septimus returns from the boat-house, where he was supposed to have dueled Chater but instead shot only a rabbit. He is met by Jellaby, who explains that Mrs. Chater was caught leaving Byron's room the night before, and in the tumult that followed, Captain Brice, the Chaters, and Lord Byron all left the estate. Lady Croom interrupts the gossip, sending Jellaby off to work. She is infuriated at Septimus for leaving behind two letters to be read in the event of his death. One was a love letter, addressed to her, the other a note of encouragement from teacher to student, addressed to Thomasina.
It turns out that Septimus's real passion all along has been for Lady Croom—Mrs. Chater was merely a diversion. For her part, the Lady has always been fond of Septimus and merely toyed with Lord Byron. She reveals that her brother, Captain Brice, has enlisted the help of Mr. Chater to serve as an amateur botanist on an expedition to the Indies. His ulterior motive, of course, is to be near Mrs. Chater. Septimus and Lady Croom agree to put the events of the past few days behind them. To please her, Septimus even burns a letter he received from Lord Byron without reading it. Grateful for his discretion, Lady Croom invites Septimus to come to her room later that morning. When she is gone, the...
(The entire section is 1239 words.)