On the day of his majority, Sir Willoughby Patterne announces his engagement to Miss Constantia Durham. Laetitia Dale, who lives with her old father in a cottage on Willoughby’s estate, loves him, she thinks secretly, but everyone, including Willoughby, is aware of it. Ten days before the wedding day, Constantia astonishes everyone by eloping with Harry Oxford, a military man. For a few weeks after the elopement, Willoughby courts Laetitia, and the neighborhood gossips about her chances to become his wife. There is great disappointment when he suddenly decides to go abroad for three years. On his return, he brings with him his cousin, Vernon Whitford, to advise him in the management of his properties, and a young distant kinsman named Crossjay Patterne.
Laetitia is at first overjoyed at Willoughby’s return, but she soon sees that she is to lose him again, for he becomes engaged to Clara Middleton, the daughter of a learned doctor. Middleton and his daughter come to Willoughby’s estate to visit for a few weeks. Over Willoughby’s objections, Vernon encourages Crossjay to enter the marines, and the young man is sent to Laetitia to be tutored for his examination. Vernon, a literary man, wants to go to London, but Willoughby overrules him. Noting Willoughby’s self-centered attitude toward Crossjay, his complete and selfish concern with matters affecting himself, and his attempt to dominate her own mind, Clara begins to feel trapped by her betrothal. She reflects that Constantia escaped by finding a gallant Harry Oxford to take her away, but she sadly realizes that she has no one to rescue her.
When Clara attempts to break her engagement, she finds Willoughby intractable and her father too engrossed in his studies to be concerned. Willoughby decides that Laetitia should become Vernon’s wife, so that he will have near him both his cousin and the woman who feeds his ego with her devotion. According to Willoughby’s plan, Vernon can retire to one of the cottages on the estate and write and study. When Willoughby asks Clara to help him in his plan, Clara takes the opportunity to ask Vernon’s advice on her own problem. He tells her that she must move subtly and slowly....
(The entire section is 899 words.)