Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1199
When Harriet Byron, a beautiful and virtuous young Englishwoman of modest expectations, departs her aunt’s home in rural Northamptonshire to visit in London, she leaves three men who love her very much and various relatives who fear that the social life of the city might offer moral pitfalls unknown to a young and unsuspecting woman of virtue. Harriet spent all of her life in the country; living with an aunt after her parents’ deaths, she is excited at the prospect of the London visit. She also goes with a happy heart, for she has no one, despite her many admirers, that she is interested in marrying; her suitors do not appeal strongly enough to her sentiments and mind despite their respectable, if ardent, attentions.
In London, Harriet has connections of a very respectable sort. She is invited to many homes and social events and meets many wealthy suitors. One of these is Sir Hargrave Pollexfen, who is determined not to accept a refusal. When told by Harriet that he does not suit her fancy, Sir Hargrave becomes enraged and vows he will have both Harriet and revenge. He lays a plot to abduct Harriet from a masquerade ball and force her to marry him.
Sir Hargrave’s plot almost succeeds, and the experience is a horrible one for Harriet. Fortunately, however, Sir Charles Grandison hears her screams and rescues her from Sir Hargrave’s clutches. Sir Charles takes Harriet to his country house, not far from London, where he and his sister invite Harriet to remain as a guest, almost a member of the family. Sir Hargrave sends a challenge to Sir Charles, but the latter refuses to fight a duel, insisting that no virtuous man, however brave and skilled, can become a duelist and retain his virtue.
Harriet soon falls in love with Sir Charles. She realizes that he is the very soul of honor and virtue, a man whose time is spent in carefully managing his own affairs and in doing good for others. When his father died, he had left his entire estate to Sir Charles with no provision for the two daughters of the family. When Sir Charles returned to England from the Continent to take over his estate, he treated his sisters with consideration and with devotion. The oldest receives his permission for her to marry Lord L., a suitor frowned upon by her father during his lifetime. Sir Charles also begins to improve his estates and their revenues so that he can set aside better marriage portions for both his sisters, something more than their father was willing to do. Sir Charles befriends everyone who will accept his kindnesses, and he always behaves wisely and with decorum. Even those persons who are prepared to dislike him find themselves won over by his sympathetic, friendly, and yet dignified ways. Even to his father’s paramour, Mrs. Oldham, he behaves magnanimously, persuading the rest of the family to view her as a fellow human being.
Many women are in love with Sir Charles, including Harriet, but no one can ascertain if he has any inclinations toward any particular woman. Harriet, however, tries to hide her love for him and to subdue it, although many of Sir Charles’s friends and relatives, including his sisters, favor the match. Sir Charles consistently refers to Harriet as a sister and behaves toward her with the same consideration he shows Charlotte and Lady L. Finally, it becomes known that two Italian women he met in his travels won some favor from him and have some claim to him and his affections. One is Lady Olivia and the other is Lady Clementina della Porretta, whom he met after saving her brother’s life. Lady Clementina’s family does not favor a marriage between their daughter and a Protestant Englishman, but the young woman is so enamored of Sir Charles that his departure from Italy unhinges her reason. Feeling a sense of responsibility to the lady and her family as the source of her misfortune, Sir Charles returns to Italy with English medical experts to try to effect a cure. Harriet believes that he would prefer Lady Clementina to her and begins to prepare herself for news of his marriage to the Italian woman.
After she recovers from her malady, however, Lady Clementina refuses to marry Sir Charles, despite the fact that her family and he were able to reach a compromise over religious differences. Lady Clementina, a devout Roman Catholic, fears that she will be tempted by her love for Sir Charles and his virtue to leave her faith to become a Protestant. She asks to be free not to marry at all, since she cannot marry him; her family hopes she will marry some other eligible man.
While he is still in Italy, an attempt is made on Sir Charles’s life, almost certainly at the instigation of Lady Olivia, who previously struck at him with a poniard after he repulsed her addresses. After this incident, Sir Charles feels himself free to pay his court where he desires. He returns to England and immediately begins his suit for Harriet’s hand, which he quickly wins. In the meantime, his sister Charlotte marries Lord G., and Harriet helps the impetuous and willful young woman to learn to bear properly the dignity of matrimony. Harriet’s marriage to Sir Charles still faces some small obstacles. She has to learn to accept her suitor in new ways; she is shocked, for example, when he kisses her on the mouth instead of on the cheek. Furthermore, Harriet has to find a place in her heart for Emily Jervois, Sir Charles’s young ward. The young girl loves her guardian, and Harriet, aware of the girl’s feelings, has to help her accept Harriet’s marriage to Sir Charles. Another disturbance is caused by a former suitor of Harriet, Mr. Greville, who tries, while emotionally deranged, to fight a duel with Sir Charles.
Harriet and Sir Charles are finally married. A short time later, they are visited by Lady Clementina, who ran away from her home in Italy because of her parents’ insistence that she marry. Through a compromise, Sir Charles manages to arrange a satisfactory agreement between the young woman and her family. Word also comes of Sir Hargrave’s death. Sir Hargrave, rescued in France by Sir Charles from the outraged relatives of a woman he attempted to seduce, discovered the evil of his ways. Wishing to make amends for the abduction and the attempted forced marriage to Harriet, Sir Hargrave leaves his fortune to her and her husband. Even the mother of Emily is influenced to become a respectable and virtuous woman. Encouraged by Sir Charles’s magnanimity and financial generosity, she interests herself in religion. At one time, the unfortunate woman looked on Sir Charles as her enemy and she and Mr. O’Hara, her onetime paramour and second husband, attempted to force Emily into a degrading marriage with a rascal who promised to share with them the girl’s fortune that Sir Charles holds in trust; now, however, they mend their dissolute ways and became sober, worthy persons.