Act I Summary
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....
(The entire section is 1785 words.)
Act II Summary
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...
(The entire section is 1239 words.)