Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
Lady Sneerwell, who in her youth was the target of slander, has set her life upon a course to reduce the reputations of other women to the level of her own. Aided by her intimate, Snake, she intrigues to involve the Teazles in scandal, to bring Joseph Surface’s true character to light, to wreck the love between Charles and Maria, and to gain Charles for herself along with Sir Oliver’s fortune. To her the world consists of nothing but scandal and scandalous intrigues, and she does her best to make her vision a reality. She is not successful, however, when she abuses Charles Surface to Sir Peter Teazle’s ward Maria, who refuses to listen to her. Instead, Maria trustingly confides in Lady Candour, whose defense of a reputation ensures its complete annihilation.
Sometimes Sir Peter Teazle ponders the wisdom of his marriage to Lady Teazle, doubting the judgment of an old bachelor in marrying a young wife. Lady Teazle is a country-bred girl who is enjoying London life extravagantly and to the full. Sir Oliver Surface is concerned about his two nephews, his problem being the disposal of his great fortune. Sir Oliver has been abroad for the past fifteen years and feels that he does not know his nephews’ real natures; he hopes by some stratagem to catch them unawares and thus be able to test their characters.
One day, Sir Peter and Lady Teazle quarrel because Sir Peter violently objects to her attendance at the home of Lady Sneerwell. Lady Teazle accuses Sir Peter of wishing to deprive her of all freedom and reminds him that he has promised to go to Lady Sneerwell’s with her. He retorts that he will do so for only one reason, to look after his own character. When they arrive, Lady Sneerwell’s rooms are full of people uttering libelous remarks about their enemies and saying even worse things about their friends. Sir Peter escapes as soon as possible.
When the rest of Lady Sneerwell’s guests retire to the card room, leaving Maria and Joseph alone, Joseph once more presses his suit. He insinuates that Maria is in love with Charles and is thus running counter to Sir Peter’s wishes. Lady Teazle walks in just as Joseph is on his knees avowing his honest love. Surprised, Lady Teazle tells Maria that she is wanted in the next room. After Maria leaves, Lady Teazle asks Joseph for an explanation of what she has seen, and he tells her that he was pleading with Maria not to tell Sir Peter of his tender concern for Lady Teazle.
Sir Oliver consults Rowley, Sir Peter’s shrewd and observing servant, in an attempt to learn more about his nephews’ characters. Rowley himself believes that Joseph does not have as good a character as his reputation seems to indicate and that Charles has a better one. Sir Oliver also consults Sir Peter, who declares that he is ready to stake his life on Joseph’s honor. He is much put out, therefore, when Maria once more refuses to marry Joseph.
Sir Peter, Sir Oliver, and Rowley plan to test the worthiness of the nephews. Charles is, as usual, in dire need of money, and Sir Oliver arranges to accompany a moneylender who is going to see Charles; Sir Oliver will claim to be Mr. Premium, a man who can supply the money that Charles needs. When they arrive at Charles’s lodging, a drinking party is in progress, and some of the...
(The entire section is 1352 words.)
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