Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1711
Richard Feverel is the only son of Sir Austin Feverel of Raynham Abbey. After Sir Austin’s wife leaves him, the baronet becomes a misogynist and determines to rear his son according to a system that, among other things, virtually excludes females from the boy’s life until the boy is twenty-five years old. At that time, Sir Austin thinks, his son may marry, so long as a woman good enough for the young man can be found.
Raised within his father’s system, Richard’s early life is carefully controlled. The boy is kept from lakes and rivers so he will not drown, from firecrackers so he will not be burned, and from cricket fields so he will not be bruised. Adrian Harley, Sir Austin’s nephew, is entrusted with Richard’s education. Adrian calls his young charge the Hope of Raynham.
When he is fourteen years old, Richard becomes restless. It is decided that he needs a companion of his own age, and his father chooses young Ripton Thompson, the none-too-brilliant son of Sir Austin’s lawyer. In their escapades around Raynham Abbey together, Richard leads and Ripton follows. Despite Ripton’s subordinate position, however, he apparently has much to do with corrupting his companion and weakening Sir Austin’s system. Soon after Ripton arrives at Raynham, the two boys decide to go shooting. A quarrel arises between them when Ripton, who is not a sportsman by nature, cries out as Richard is aiming at a bird. Richard calls his companion a fool, and a fight ensues. Richard wins because he is a scientific boxer.
The two boys soon make up their differences, but the state of harmony is short lived. The same afternoon, they trespass on the farm of a neighbor named Blaize, who finds them after they shoot a pheasant on his property. Blaize orders the boys off his land, and, when they refuse to go, he horsewhips them. Richard and Ripton are compelled to retreat. Ripton suggests that he stone the farmer, but Richard refuses to let his companion use such ungentlemanly tactics. The two boys do, however, speculate on ways to get even with farmer Blaize.
Richard is in disgrace when he returns to Raynham because his father knows of his fight with Ripton. Sir Austin orders his son to go to bed immediately after supper; he later discovers that Richard disobeyed him and met up with Ripton instead. The boys are overheard talking mysteriously about setting something on fire. Shortly afterward, when Sir Austin discovers that farmer Blaize’s hayricks are on fire, he suspects Richard. Sir Austin is chagrined, but he does not try to make his son confess. Adrian Harley suspects both Richard and Ripton, and the latter boy is soon sent home to his father.
The next day, a laborer named Tom Bakewell is arrested on suspicion of having committed arson. Tom did set fire to Blaize’s property, but he was bribed by Richard to do so. Nevertheless, Tom refuses to implicate Richard. Conscience-stricken and aware that a commoner is shielding him, Richard confesses to Blaize. Blaize is not surprised by Richard’s visit, for Sir Austin has already called and paid the damages resulting from the fire.
Richard is humiliated by the necessity of apologizing to a farmer. He tells Blaize that he was the one who set fire to the farmer’s grain stacks; Blaize, however, implies that Richard is a liar: Blaize has a witness, a dull-witted fellow, who insists that Tom Bakewell was the arsonist. Richard maintains that he himself was responsible, and he succeeds in confusing Blaize’s star witness. Afterward, Richard leaves the farm in an irritated frame of mind. He has been so distracted while there that he never notices the farmer’s pretty thirteen-year-old niece, Lucy Desborough, when she lets him in and out of Blaize’s house. At Tom’s trial, Blaize’s witness is so uncertain about the identity of the arsonist that the accused is released. Thereafter, Tom becomes Richard’s devoted servant.
When Richard reaches the age of eighteen, Sir Austin sets about finding him a prospective wife, a girl who could be trained for seven years to be a fit mate for Sir Austin’s perfect son. Richard, however, cannot wait seven years before beginning to show an interest in women. He is first attracted to his cousin, Clare, who adores him and dreams of marrying the handsome young man. In a single afternoon, however, Richard completely forgets Clare. While boating on the weir, he comes upon a young lady in distress and saves her boat from capsizing. In an instant, the system collapses completely. She introduces herself as farmer Blaize’s niece, Lucy Desborough. Richard and Lucy are immediately attracted to each other, and they meet every day in the meadow by the weir.
Meanwhile, Sir Austin has found in London someone he thinks will be the perfect mate for his son, a young woman named Carola Grandison. Informed by Adrian and his butler that Richard is secretly meeting Lucy, Sir Austin orders his son to come to London immediately to meet Carola. At first, Richard refuses to obey his father, but Adrian tricks Richard into going to London by saying that Sir Austin has apoplexy.
Richard finds his father physically well but mentally disturbed by the young man’s interest in Lucy. He tells Richard that women are the ordeal of all men, and although he hopes for a confession of Richard’s affair with Lucy, he receives none. Sir Austin, however, refuses to let the young man return to Raynham. Richard meets the Grandisons, listens to his father’s lectures on the folly of young men who imagine themselves in love, and mopes when, after two weeks, Lucy mysteriously stops writing.
When Sir Austin and his son finally return to Raynham Abbey, Richard finds out that Lucy has been sent away to school against her will by her uncle so that she will not interfere with Sir Austin’s system. Although the farmer does not object to Richard, he refuses to have his niece brought back. After his unsuccessful attempt to have his sweetheart returned to him, Richard decides upon drastic measures. Sir Austin unwittingly aides his son’s designs when he sends Richard to London to see the Grandisons. Tom Blaize, farmer Blaize’s son, has been chosen by Sir Austin and her uncle to be Lucy’s husband, and he travels to London by the same train.
Richard gets in touch with his old friend, Ripton Thompson, and asks him to secure lodgings for a lady. While in London, Richard runs into Adrian Harley, Clare’s mother, and Clare. Richard accidentally drops a wedding ring, and Clare—unbeknown to the boy—picks it up. Tom Blaize is tricked into going to the wrong station to find Lucy, and Richard meets her instead. He sets her up with Mrs. Berry in lodgings in Kensington and marries her soon afterward. Good-hearted Mrs. Berry gives them her own wedding ring to replace the one Richard has lost.
When Adrian learns of Richard’s marriage, he admits that the system has failed. Ripton breaks the news to Sir Austin, who remarks bitterly that he was mistaken to believe that any system could be based on a human being. Actually, Sir Austin objects not so much to his son’s marriage as to the deception involved.
Efforts are made to reconcile Richard and his father, but they are unsuccessful. Richard is uneasy because he has not heard from his father, and Sir Austin is too proud to take the first step. While Richard and Lucy are honeymooning in the Isle of Wight, he is introduced to a fast yachting crowd, including Lord Mountfalcon, a man of doubtful reputation. Richard naïvely asks him to watch over Lucy while Richard himself goes to London to see his father and ask his forgiveness.
In London, Richard meets a Mrs. Mount, whom Lord Mountfalcon has bribed to bring about Richard’s downfall. Mountfalcon plans to win Lucy for himself by convincing her of Richard’s infidelity. Richard does not know that Mrs. Mount is being bribed to detain him and that, while she keeps him in London, Lord Mountfalcon is attempting to seduce Lucy.
Because he cannot bear separation from his son any longer, Sir Austin consents to see Richard. Relations between Richard and his father are still strained, however, for Sir Austin has not yet accepted Lucy. Meanwhile, since she cannot have Richard, Clare has married a man much older than herself. Shortly after her marriage, she dies and is buried with both her own wedding ring and Richard’s lost one on her finger.
The death of Clare and the realization that she had loved him deeply shocks Richard. Moreover, his indiscretions with Mrs. Mount make him ashamed of himself; he thinks he is unworthy to touch Lucy’s hand. He does not know that Mrs. Berry has gone to the Isle of Wight and brought Lucy back to live with her in Kensington. Richard himself goes to the Continent, traveling aimlessly, unaware that Lucy has given birth to a son.
An uncle who disbelieves in all systems returns to London. Learning of Lucy and her child, he bundles them off to Raynham Abbey and prevails on Sir Austin to receive them. Then, he goes to the Continent, finds Richard, and breaks the news that he is a father. Richard rushes back to Raynham to be with Lucy and to reconcile completely with his father.
The reunion between Lucy and Richard is brief. Richard sees his son and receives complete forgiveness for his past misdeeds from his wife. A letter from Mrs. Mount to Richard reveals Lord Mountfalcon’s schemes to see Lucy and separate her from Richard. Knowing Lucy’s innocence and Mountfalcon’s villainy, Richard immediately travels to France, where he is slightly wounded in a duel with Lord Mountfalcon. The news of the duel, however, is fatal for Lucy. She becomes ill of brain fever and dies of shock, crying for her husband. Richard is heartbroken. Sir Austin also grieves, but his closest friend often wonders whether he ever perceived any flaws in his system.