Last Updated September 5, 2023.
The novel concerns a young man named Harley, who finds himself in need of increasing his fortune sooner rather than later. There are two possible ways he could do so:
One of these was, the prospect of his succeeding to an old lady, a distant relation, who was known to be possessed of a very large sum in the stocks: but in this their hopes were disappointed; for the young man was so untoward in his disposition, that . . . his visits rather tended to alienate than gain the good-will of his kinswoman. He sometimes looked grave when the old lady told the jokes of her youth; . . . nay, he had once the rudeness to fall asleep while she was describing the composition and virtues of her favourite cholic-water.
Because he failed on all fronts to satisfy her moods and requests, when she died she left him no money whatsoever.
The other method is to try to secure a lease on the crown lands that border the estate he inherited from his father. He could purchase them relatively inexpensively, as their rental income is rather low. His associates encourage him to do this, and offer to provide him introductions to a baronet in London who could further his cause. Social advancement was thus highly recommended to Harley:
They did not fail to enumerate the many advantages which a certain degree of spirit and assurance gives a man who would make a figure in the world: they repeated their instances of good fortune in others, ascribed them all to a happy forwardness of disposition….
Arriving in London after a few small adventures, Harley cannot immediately connect with the baronet, but he keeps trying. While in the city, his friends take him to see the local sights which, in those days, included Bedlam, the famous asylum. Some of the inmates were so wild they were chained up while others wandered about, and Harley confused them with the other visitors as their opinions basically matched his own. One such man told him:
But delusive ideas, sir, are the motives of the greatest part of mankind, and a heated imagination the power by which their actions are incited: the world, in the eye of a philosopher, may be said to be a large madhouse.
Harley’s naïveté leads him to give aid to a destitute young woman, eking out her living as a prostitute. Harley is subjected to her piteous tale of woe about how she became separated from her father, a military officer. As the story concludes, the father walks in and suspects Harley of spoiling his daughter. Harley manages to talk the man down, and even takes them to get better rooms at his own inn.
The next day, Harley receives a response from the baronet: the lease, which would have solidified Harley's fortune, was given to to another man. In a chance encounter, Harley then learns learns that it was in fact the baronet’s footman (also a procurer or "gauger") who received the lease. Disappointed, Harley returns home.
Once arrived, he encounters an old man named Edwards, a friend of his father’s, who has just returned from service in India. After Edwards discovers that his son has died, Harley helps this man and his family.
The author contrasts other characters' thoughts and behaviors with the conscientiousness that Harley exhibits, as he “knew the pleasure of doing charitable things,” unlike most people:
Harley returned to the abode of his fathers: and we cannot but think, that his enjoyment was as great as if he had arrived from the tour of Europe with a Swiss valet for his companion…. But we take our ideas from sounds which folly has invented; Fashion, Bon ton, and Vertù, are the names of certain idols, to which we sacrifice the genuine pleasures of the soul: in this world of semblance, we are contented with personating happiness; to feel it is an art beyond us.