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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

Sir Willoughby Patterne is the heir to the Patterne family line and lord of their English country estate. When the novel opens, he is engaged to Constantia Durham. Other members of their upper-class social circle comment favorably on the engagement and, in general, admire Willoughby as handsome and well-proportioned. The narrator quotes several women who speak favorably about his “leg” and compare him to a cavalier. He was also very properly brought up, as English noblemen should be, to excel at such sports as fox hunting and not spend time on philosophical matters. The adulation bestowed upon him, however, has made him conceited.

He had received the domestic education of a prince . . . . [England has] a manly as well as useful race of little princes, and Willoughby was as manly as any. He cultivated himself, he would not be outdone in popular accomplishments. Had the standard of the public taste been set in philosophy, and the national enthusiasm centred in philosophers, he would at least have worked at books. He did work at science, and had a laboratory. His admirable passion to excel, however, was chiefly directed in his youth upon sport . . .

Constantia abruptly ends the engagement, goes to London, and marries an old boyfriend. She had turned against Willoughby after he rudely turned away a relative, Crossjay Patterne of the Marines, who called upon him at home; she considered such behavior unforgivable. Thus liberated, Willoughby sets off to tour the world and is away from England for three years.

Laetitia Dale is a smart, good-looking but poor young woman who lives with her father in a cottage on the estate. She must earn a living, which she does as a writer. Willoughby is fond of her and considers her a good friend and had toyed with the idea of marrying her but instead had opted for the wealthy, beautiful Constantia. The neighbors are rather shocked that he did not turn to her after being jilted, but they decide he must have known best. Upon returning from his trip, he goes to visit Laetitia, and she gets her hopes up, but he intends merely to continue as friends.

Willoughby’s next fiancée is the 18-year-old Clara Middleton, who initially resists his proposal because he wants to marry right away; they agree to a six-month engagement, and she is introduced at Patterne Hall. Willoughby’s interest in her is again beauty and also competition with the many young men who pursued her. He particularly likes the way they look as a couple, considering her a perfect counterpart.

Clara was young, healthy, handsome; she was therefore fitted to be his wife, the mother of his children, his companion picture. Certainly they looked well side by side. In walking with her, in drooping to her, the whole man was made conscious of the female image of himself by her exquisite unlikeness. She completed him, added the softer lines wanting to his portrait before the world.

Willoughby keeps trying to change Clara, however; he believes that she should not have opinions of her own and should follow his lead in everything. As his pressures continue for her to set aside independent thinking, she begins to have serious doubts. Because she cannot see herself as only his fiancée, she feels she is somehow lacking.

[S]she fell in her own esteem; less because she was the betrothed Clara Middleton, which was now palpable as a shot in the breast of a bird, than that she was a captured woman, of whom it is absolutely expected that she must submit…. Clara had shame...

(This entire section contains 866 words.)

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of her sex. They cannot take a step without becoming bondwomen: into what a slavery! For herself, her trial was over, she thought…. She did but criticize him and wonder that a man was unable to perceive, or was not arrested by perceiving, unwillingness, discordance, dull compliance; the bondwoman's due instead of the bride's consent.

Ultimately, Clara decides she cannot go through with the wedding. More out of his injured pride than real love for her, Willoughby initially refuses to release her from the engagement. Most of the novel involves her efforts to be released, including running away. A family friend, Vernon Whitford, falls in love with her, and she admires his treatment of Willoughby’s young cousin, who has come to live at the estate. Evenutally, Willoughby does yield, and Clara marries Whitford. Willoughby finally comes around to admitting his love for Laetitia. The first time he proposes, she refuses, but when he returns, she agrees to marry him—but with some conditions. He agrees that he will expect her to be herself, and to help him correct his flaws. Upon accepting, she tells his sisters how her views of love and marriage have changed:

“I used to think the heart a woman's marriage portion for her husband. I see now that she may consent, and he accept her, without one. But it is right that you should know what I am when I consent. I was once a foolish, romantic girl; now I am a sickly woman, all illusions vanished. Privation has made me what an abounding fortune usually makes of others—I am an Egoist.”