Wednesday, 22 February 2017


Jane Austen began writing Persuasion on 8 August 1815, a day when she was visited by her niece Anna Lefroy with her husband Ben – the son of Jane's deceased former friend Mrs. Lefroy. The young couple were on their way from Hendon to their new home near Chawton. There is a possibility that Lady Russell could have been inspired by Mrs. Lefroy. (Interestingly, the Lefroys' predecessor at Ashe Rectory had been a Revd. Dr. Russell.)

Technically, Emma is superior to Persuasion: it has a splendid portrait gallery, it is full of life, it does not depend on contrivances or improbabilities. In Persuasion there are longueurs and some clumsiness, a slow beginning, a need of more dialogue, a too-convenient story-within-a-story (Mrs. Smith's). Yet Persuasion stirs the emotions in a way that Emma does not.

There are some wonderful scenes (Lyme, the Octagon Room concert), poignant moments (the first meeting of Anne and Wentworth) and sublime inspiration (the means of the proposal – that letter appeared only in Jane's revised version of the chapter).

(The situation in which a man secretly communicated with a lady by passing a letter to her had occurred in The Midnight Bell by Francis Lathom - one of the gothic novels recommended by Isabella Thorpe in Northanger Abbey.)

The great strength of this novel is the emotional depth of Anne. It would be difficult to find anywhere in literature a better portrait of a woman continuing to love, when hope has almost gone. 


There are some similarities between Persuasion and King Lear, in the sense that both move a protagonist relying on false values, based on essentially meaningless social and political commonplaces to a state of spiritual devastation and then to a reintegration, this time with sound values. There are in both a vain, selfish old man with three daughters - one good and two decidedly less than good. However, the central character becomes the daughter rather than the father - Cordelia rather than Lear. Anne is the Lear of this tale. She regains a sense of perspective by going into the world of the slightly less exalted humbler characters - the Harvilles and Mrs. Smith.

Jane's tone is always comic, even when the material seems improbable or intractable. Take the death of Mrs. Churchill in Emma. The author describes convincingly how people react, yet we cannot read it without smiling, especially at the words 'Mrs Churchill, after being disliked at least twenty-five years, was now spoken of with compassionate allowances. In one point she was fully justified. She had never been admitted before to be seriously ill. The event acquitted her of all the fancifulness and all the selfishness of imaginary complaints'. Similarly, Anne Elliot's love for Wentworth is described with an exquisite sympathy, but Jane is not blinded to the ironic implications: when Lady Russell looks out of the carriage, Anne is sure her eyes are fixed on Wentworth. In reality, her ladyship is inspecting some curtains.

Monday, 20 February 2017


For much of the novel, the reader sees only what Emma sees. The reader is made aware of her response to whatever happens. Yet the author's handling of irony is so skilful that we can often recognize where Emma's judgement is at fault (just as in Love and Freindship we were able to see through the absurdities of Laura, the first-person narrator). On rare occasions - the minimum necessary - Jane Austen provides a brief linking narrative or lets us see events through the eyes of other characters.
Jane Austen interweaves details whose relevance is imperceptible at the time. Reading the novel again, we notice these – especially the hints concerning Jane and Frank. The lovers are interrupted while he is ostensibly repairing Mrs. Bates' spectacles. Emma - and the readers - fail to detect the reason for their confusion. The gossip of Miss Bates is brilliantly interwoven in the plot: her rambling chatter unwittingly contains allusions which later prove to be clues. Jane Austen even makes us accept the possibility of a marriage between Frank and Emma.

Incidental remarks prove prophetically ironic. Early in the novel, Knightley hopes Emma will one day know what it is to be in love, without being sure her affection is returned. Emma later has just such an experience when the man she loves is none other than Knightley himself.

Some of the suspense in Jane Austen's novels derives from the women's ignorance of what the men are thinking. Jane never in a major novel has a scene at which no woman is present. This is convenient in creating suspense but it is also typical of her principle of writing only about that with which she is familiar. For much of the time, male characters are revealed only in what the ladies observe of them. Emma does not know Knightley's deepest thoughts about her, though she is permitted to know what he thinks about Frank and Jane. His suspicion of their behaviour, we realise later, demonstrates his percipience, his love, and his concern for others, especially Emma.

Emma's final enlightenment comes when she is shocked by Harriet's disclosure that she hopes to marry Mr. Knightley. In this, the emotional climax of the novel, Emma discovers that she herself loves him:

   It darted through her, with the speed of an arrow, that Mr.Knightley must marry no one but herself! 

She sees that 'blindness' and 'madness' have led her into delusions, blunders and ill-judged meddling. But there have been many clues to her previously unacknowledged attitude to Knightley. She always cared about what Knightley was thinking. (There are parallels between Emma's 'love' story and Elizabeth Bennet's: Elizabeth, ostensibly indifferent to Darcy, is always concerned about what he may be thinking.)

Friday, 17 February 2017


By the end of Jane Austen’s life, on £400 a year a family could employ two maidservants, one horse and a groom. £400 a year is about what Mrs. Dashwood and her daughters have. On £700 a family could keep one man, three maidservants, and two horses. That is approximately what Elinor and Edward marry on. With £1,000 a year, a family could blossom out into an establishment of three female servants, a coachman and footman, a chariot or coach, phaeton or other four-wheeled carriage, and a pair of horses. On £5,000 a year the establishment grew to about thirteen male and nine female servants, ten horses, a coach, curricle and a chaise or gig. Mr. Bingley had up to £6,000 a year. The Darcys, of course, had £10,000 a year.

As to wages, a young maidservant might expect from £5 to £11 a year (perhaps a little more in very wealthy households). The wages were actually expressed in guineas - a guinea being 105% of a pound sterling.

Other typical annual salaries were £24 for a housekeeper, £30 for a governess, £50 for a butler and £9 for a scullion.

Jane Austen knows money is important but she disapproves of anyone obsessed by it. The rich should behave generously and without airs. People should not seek (as Wickham and Mr. Elliot do) to marry only for money. In Willoughby, such motivation is soundly punished.

Jane's heroines do not have a mercenary thought. Not one thinks of marrying for anything but love – not even the future Mrs. Darcy, even though she reflects that 'to be mistress of Pemberley might be something'! Marriage that happened to bring money was fair enough; but only if it was founded on love. Jane herself turned down an opportunity of marrying the heir to an estate – Harris Bigg Wither – because she did not truly love him.

Tuesday, 14 February 2017


Novels of Jane Austen’s time were normally published in three volumes. This must have been partly to facilitate the reading by several members of the household simultaneously (as when Caroline Bingley reads the second volume of Darcy's novel), and partly to assist circulating libraries. These libraries, which you joined by paying a small subscription, were far and away the most important buyers and circulators of books for most of the Nineteenth Century. They usually bought up to three quarters of the copies printed.

A novel, unbound, might cost a week's wages for an average working man. You could go to the library and take out one volume, read it, then take it back and get out the next one.

In Victorian times, Mudie's was to be one of the biggest circulating libraries. In the front and back of its books, this company included pages of advertisements for patent medicines, boot black, tooth powder, and other odd-sounding things.

The novelist had to take care to structure the book so that each individual volume had some shape and could stand alone, and of course end with a kind of cliffhanger – as in Mansfield Park, where Volume I ends with Julia bursting in on the theatricals to announce that Sir Thomas is in the hall at this very moment. Volume II of Pride and Prejudice ends with Elizabeth just about to go and see Pemberley for herself for the very first time.

Saturday, 11 February 2017


It is interesting to note where the characters are installed in the London scenes of Sense and Sensibility. Apart from Mrs. Ferrars in Park Street, not far from the Park, and the John Dashwoods in Harley Street, north of Oxford Street, the others are fairly near to each other, being, from north to south: the Palmers in Hanover Square, the Middletons in Conduit Street, Mrs. Jennings in Berkeley Street; and then in lodgings Willoughby in Bond Street (the Old Bond Street of today) and Colonel Brandon in St. James’ Street. The Miss Steeles had to move farther off to Bartlett’s Buildings in Holborn. So Willoughby was lodging close to Mrs. Jennings, giving point to his deliberate avoidance of the Dashwood sisters, and, since he was fairly near the Middletons, his blundering into Sir John would not have been at all surprising.

Wednesday, 8 February 2017


Elinor is a prolific and confident speaker, compared with the usual Jane Austen heroine. Anne Elliot in some chapters is virtually silent. But Elinor has plenty to say; and she probably speaks as many words in the middle of Chapter 37 as Anne Elliot does in the whole of Persuasion. Her reflections there on the relationship between Lucy and Edward and on her own behaviour during the past four months read like a Shakespearean soliloquy.

As for Marianne, it goes without saying that she never goes without saying. In her case, robust self-expression is one of the 'defects' of character that she must learn to curb.

Although we are given the illusion of following the inner lives of both sisters, the truth is that we interpret events almost entirely through Elinor’s vision. She is present throughout almost the entire narrative and we are kept fully aware of what she is thinking and feeling. We are also led to believe that her views are sound, sensible and to be admired, whereas there is explicit criticism from the narrator of Marianne’s behaviour. This, for example, comes from Chapter 31:

Like half the rest of the world, if more than half there be that are clever and good, Marianne, with excellent abilities and an excellent disposition, was neither reasonable nor candid. She expected from other people the same opinions and feelings as her own, and she judged of their motives by the immediate effect of their actions on herself.

There are no such reservations in the praise the narrator gives Elinor. So, although the novel is sometimes said to demonstrate fairly the merits of persons who behave with sensibililty as well as those who behave with sense, it is clear that, over all, Jane Austen comes down in favour of ‘sense’. Although Marianne is treated sympathetically – and Jane Austen makes clear she is essentially a good-hearted person – her actions are almost always observed through Elinor’s eyes, with Elinor’s interpretation of them.

At one point Elinor mildly takes Marianne to task for behaving with impropriety. Marianne says she knows there can be nothing wrong with what she did, for she would not have enjoyed it if there had been.

How the doctrine that a ‘good’ person would know, instinctively, whether something was good or bad ever came into being is hard to say. The idea no doubt is that we all have a natural conscience that instinctively reacts against evil, but this is a concept that flies in the face of experience. Propriety is a set of rules made by society. Elinor tries to follow them because they make for smoother relations among people. Marianne thinks she does not have to bother about rules as long as her conscience is clear.

Sunday, 5 February 2017


Jane Austen's childhood writings are full of black jokes and anarchic imaginings. The tale called Evelyn is comically manic. Of the many weird and fast-moving plots in Jane Austen's juvenile works, this strange little novel has perhaps the weirdest and fastest. It takes virtues popularly extolled in eighteenth-century sentimental novels – hospitality and benevolence – and reduces them to the absurd.
Passing through Evelyn, an idyllic Sussex village, Mr. Gower is so impressed that he decides to live there. Mr. and Mrs. Webb welcome him into their house and, though he is a total stranger, immediately give him their best food and insist that he takes all their ready money. When they ask him whether there is anything else he would like, he requests first their house and grounds and then their beautiful daughter Maria. They give him the lot, including a dowry of ten thousand pounds. They are even exceedingly obliged to Mr. Gower for allowing them half an hour to clear out of their own home!

Meanwhile, a man of high rank had fallen in love with Gower's sister Rosa but had been sent by his father on a sea voyage (to the Isle of Wight!) to prevent the marriage. He had been shipwrecked and died. Gower remembers after three months that he had been on his way to see the father in question. He proceeds to the gentleman's castle near Evelyn, where his conversation leaves the company with the well-founded opinion 'of his being Mad'. Meanwhile, his young wife Maria has been so grieved by his absence that 'she died of a broken heart about 3 hours after his departure'.

Despite his bereavement, Gower returns merrily to Carlisle, where he finds his sister Rosa married to a Mr. Davenport. Gower encounters (in Carlisle - what a coincidence!) the very lady alehouse-keeper who was the first person he met in Evelyn. He marries her. They settle at his house back in Evelyn. He writes to the parents of his late wife. Telling them airily of their daughter's death, he assures them he is nevertheless happy, having instantly remarried. In character, the Webbs send him and his new wife a banker's draught for £30!

Thursday, 2 February 2017


The story of Sense and Sensibility begins by explaining how the old bachelor Dashwood tied up his whole estate for the benefit of a four-year-old boy whose 'imperfect articulation, an earnest desire of having his own way, many cunning tricks, and a great deal of noise' made a greater impression on him than 'the value of all the attention which, for years, he had received from his niece and her daughters.' So the root cause of trouble in Sense and Sensibility is a will not based on sense. There are similarly troubling financial arrangements in the other Jane Austen novels, of course.

There are two parallel stories. The first concerns Elinor's relationship with Edward Ferrars, complicated by his ingenuous engagement at the age of nineteen to Lucy Steele. The other is Marianne's relationship with Colonel Brandon, complicated by her infatuation with Willoughby. The story moves from Sussex to Devon and to London (January to early April), on to Somerset (in April) and back to Devon, with sufficient time in each location for the girls to encounter people who advance or impede their progress towards marriage.

Coincidental meetings, carefully devised events and words let slip are all devices by which the story is moved along. An example is Marianne's serious illness at Cleveland caused by walking through wet grass (just a little more plausible in an age before lawn-mowers and well-surfaced footpaths). It has the effect of bringing out the best in Willoughby and also in Colonel Brandon, who shows by his concern how much he loves Marianne. And when Jane Austen comes just a little close to melodrama (in Willoughby's long protestation of his suffering now that he has lost Marianne and heard that she is dying), Willoughby says he heard the news from Sir John Middleton, who took pity on his distress and 'almost shook me by the hand, while he reminded me of an old promise about a pointer puppy'!

Monday, 30 January 2017


Here's a good question: where did Jane Austen write the words 'I am now going to murder my sister'?

Read on and you will find out.

When Jane Austen's niece Fanny Knight was born (in Kent, where she was to grow up), the teenage Jane wrote some 'instructive' pieces for the baby. She writes: 'As I am prevented by the great distance... from superintending Your Education Myself, the care of which will probably on that account devolve on your Father and Mother, I think it my particular Duty to prevent your feeling as much as possible the want of my personal instructions, by addressing to You on paper my Opinions and Admonitions on the conduct of Young Women...'.

Of course there are no 'opinions and admonitions' in these scraps. In the first piece - a letter entitled The female philosopher - Arabella writes to tell Louisa how Mr. Millar, an old friend her father had not seen for twenty years, has called on them with his two younger daughters. One of them, Julia, with her tedious, trivial moralizing, may have established a pattern for Mary Bennet: '...the amiable Julia uttered Sentiments of Morality worthy of a heart like her own... Mr. Millar observed (and very justly too) that many events had befallen each during that interval of time, which gave occasion to the lovely Julia for making most sensible reflections on the many changes in their situation which so long a period had occasioned, on the advantages of some, and the disadvantages of others. From this subject she made a short digression to the instability of human pleasures and the uncertainty of their duration, which led her to observe that all earthly Joys must be imperfect. She was proceeding to illustrate this doctrine by examples from the Lives of Great Men when the Carriage came to the Door and the amiable Moralist with her Father and Sister was obliged to depart...' (mercifully!).

Jane then offers her niece a Letter from a Young Lady, 'whose feelings being too Strong for her Judgement led her into the commission of Errors which her Heart disapproved'. Anna Parker writes: 'I murdered my father at a very early period of my Life, I have since murdered my Mother, and I am now going to murder my Sister. I have changed my religion so often that at present I have not an idea of any left.' She has decided to reform and marry Colonel Martin of the Horse Guards, whom she has helped swindle his elder brother out of a massive inheritance. The letter ends:

I am now going to murder my Sister. Yours Ever,

Anna Parker.

Friday, 27 January 2017


What about those astonishingly unobtrusive men - the 'heroes' of Sense and Sensibility? Jane Austen has to keep the two sisters in the foreground. It is their anxieties and suspense that grip us. So we have to share the mysteries surrounding Edward, Willoughby and Brandon. Edward and Brandon can not be expected to shine.

Edward Ferrars is an unlikely 'hero'. No extrovert, he says of himself, 'I have no wish to be distinguished; and I have every reason to hope I never shall. Thank Heaven! I cannot be forced into genius and eloquence.’

Unfortunately for him, Edward's introduction to sexual attraction is Lucy Steele. She, like Mary Crawford, is sexy; and sexy ladies affect the hormones of inexperienced young men. Hormones make poor choices. Hormones are pure nature without the veneer of civilization. Mr. Bennet was so caught in his youth and has regretted it ever since.

Of course, we can accuse Edward of being the dumbest lover ever to win a virtuous heroine in the Austen canon. What folly it is of him to come from the home of his fiancée still wearing her ring with the lock of hair in it! We have to blame either him or the fledgling authoress.

However, when he shows an unheroic 'dejection of mind', he and the author alone know that he is tormented by his foolish teenage engagement to Lucy Steele, from which he is too honourable to extricate himself. Only in re-reading the novel do we notice all the little clues accounting for his gloom: visiting the Dashwood ladies in Devon, 'He looked rather distressed as he added that he had been staying with some friends near Plymouth'. On a second reading, we know who those 'friends' were.

Because of the mystery, Jane Austen felt obliged to keep him offstage throughout most of the novel. In the early chapters, she does not let us hear him speak or see him doing much at all. Instead, Elinor, who has fallen in love with him, makes the case for him. She has to state what his good qualities are.

Marianne also admires Edward’s strengths, embarrassingly and with an unwitting irony during the tense scene with Elinor, Edward and Lucy (Chapter 35). She says of him: ‘I really believe he has the most delicate conscience in the world; the most scrupulous in performing every engagement, however minute, and however it may make against his interest or pleasure. He is the most fearful of giving pain, of wounding expectation….’.

Unaware that Edward feels trapped by his secret engagement to Lucy, Marianne little knows how apt are her words to the present situation.

In the London scenes, too, Edward has to disappear for a long time, with no chance to impress. Elinor and Marianne reach London in Chapter 26. He is not seen until nine chapters later and even then only in that embarrassing situation, with Lucy present throughout.

When Edward turns up in Chapter 48, he again behaves awkwardly, but at least he brings the good news that Lucy has married his brother, and not himself. While Elinor leaves the room, bursting into tears of joy, Edward slinks away to the village. At the beginning of the next chapter we are told 'His errand at Barton, in fact, was a simple one. It was only to ask Elinor to marry him; and,' Jane Austen adds with characteristic archness, 'considering that he was not altogether inexperienced in such a question, it might be strange that he should feel so uncomfortable in the present case as he really did...'. We are told that three hours later 'he had secured his lady' and become 'one of the happiest of men'.

There is potential in Edward. He has fun teasing and sparring with Marianne, first over her attitude to the picturesque and later over the way she has inadvertently revealed her feelings for Willoughby. He reacts rationally to scenery and refuses to be swayed by the Gilpinesque principles she espouses. (Gilpin suggested that cows do not look picturesque if there are more than three in a group. He proposed that painters should depict three together, with a fourth at some distance. Jane Austen uses this idea for a comic purpose in Pride and Prejudice where Elizabeth declines to join the three walkers in the Netherfield Shrubbery because she would spoil their picturesque effect.) Although Edward finds himself ensnared by Lucy and, as a man of honour, refuses to be compelled by his mother to marry the rich Miss Morton, the fact that he tells Lucy it would be 'quite unkind to keep her on to the engagement, because it must be for her loss, for he had nothing but two thousand pounds, and no hope of anything else' shows him looking for a way of extricating himself, with the intention of proposing to Elinor. We also have to admire his spirit in dashing to secure Elinor the instant he is released from his engagement. And he shows himself to be a most talkative and devoted fiancé when he finally has the opportunity of happiness in the last two chapters. (It is understandable that Emma Thompson, in her 1995 film version of Sense and Sensibility, chose to invent numerous extra scenes in which the attractiveness of Edward to Elinor was made obvious.)

Tuesday, 24 January 2017


The final work in Jane's third childhood notebook is a substantial fragment in which we find the authoress, now sixteen, approaching the content and spirit of her later masterpieces. Catharine, or the Bower is more serious. Characters are drawn more fully and dialogue is sustained.

At first, Catharine seems to be setting the mould for those later Jane Austen heroines with a keen and just sense of values against which other characters are judged and found wanting – the values to be derived from a balanced education, the development of a keen intelligence, wide interests and a concern for other people.

In Jane's teenage writing, insistence on propriety, like all other grown-up behaviour, is a source of anarchic fun. By the time of Catharine, or the Bower, however, adult concern for propriety is making itself felt. Catharine transgresses, but it is light-hearted and she never loses the sympathy of both reader and writer. She goes to a ball in the company of a man she has only just met and allows him to flirt with her the next day. But the effects never threaten to be as serious as they were to be for Marianne Dashwood or Lydia Bennet.

Observance of the proprieties was essential in polite society at the time. For example, once engaged for a dance, a woman could not accept another invitation, even if her partner failed to claim her. Being invited as partner for the first two dances was a special favour. It was the etiquette not to dance more than twice consecutively with a person to whom one was not engaged. Similarly, young couples should not be seen out often together, unless they were engaged. In a relationship with a man, the woman was not expected to write to him unless they were engaged. If they wished to communicate with men, women had to write to the men's sisters or get some other relative to write for them. A lady should not be demonstrative in her love before the affection of the gentleman had been acknowledged: Marianne Dashwood is too open in her attachment to Willoughby and there are many other examples throughout Jane’s novels of characters breaching or pushing the boundaries of these proprieties.

In Catharine, or the Bower, the orphaned Catharine leads a sheltered existence, brought up by her loving, wealthy maiden Aunt Percival. Catharine had two childhood friends, the sisters Cecilia and Mary Wynne. The three girls enjoyed escaping to the bower at the bottom of Aunt Percival's garden. When the Wynne girls, too, were orphaned, Cecilia was packed off by relatives to India to be married unhappily to a man twice her age. (This event may have been modelled on the fate of Jane Austen's aunt Philadelphia, who was sent off to India and married the surgeon Tysoe Saul Hancock - though he was only six years her senior.) Mary was engaged as a companion for her daughters by her relative Lady Halifax. 

Catharine, left alone with her aunt, is pleased when distant relatives Mr. and Mrs. Stanley come on a visit with their daughter Camilla. Catharine hopes to befriend Camilla but is shocked by the young woman's ignorance and manners. To Camilla everybody is 'either the sweetest Creature in the world ... or horrid, shocking and not fit to be seen'. (Jane Austen in Bath must have had plenty of opportunity to overhear such silly conversation.)

The two girls are contrasted in lively dialogue. Camilla boasts of her travels, and then reveals that she has no idea where Matlock and Scarborough are. She professes to be a keen reader and to like Charlotte Smith's novels but when Catharine tries to discuss them, has to admit she skipped most parts.

Then a handsome man turns up - Camilla's brother Edward. Catharine loses her composure. Attracted at once by Edward and hoping he is falling in love with her, she becomes vain and flirtatious.

He is a selfish, idle extrovert who bullies his own father, but he appeals to Catharine because he is talkative and is happy to flirt with her. He persuades her to let him accompany her to a ball which he has no shame in gate-crashing. Aunt Percival catches Edward in the bower kissing Catharine's hand. Catharine is severely rebuked. Edward leaves.

The story is becoming a muddle. Perhaps that is why Jane abandoned it.

But it was a valuable literary exercise. Camilla is an early attempt at the self-centred, empty-headed women (such as Isabella Thorpe) of the later novels. Edward Stanley is a prototype for thoughtless and idle, seductive young men. Add the motive of fortune-hunting and he becomes Wickham. Aunt Percival, obsessed with fear of catching cold, makes us think of Mr. Woodhouse. There are also witty exchanges of the kind later associated with Elizabeth Bennet. When Catharine hears that a handsome stranger has arrived late in the evening, she tells the maid: 'Perhaps he is come to rob the house – he comes in stile at least; and it will be some consolation for our losses to be robbed by a Gentleman in a Chaise and 4 – ..'. She is later cross with the young man for keeping her waiting half an hour while he powders himself for the ball, but their conversation goes as follows: 

'Well,' said he as he came in, 'have not I been very quick? I never hurried so much in my Life before.' 

'In that case you certainly have,' replied Kitty, 'for all Merit you know is comparative.'

Sunday, 22 January 2017


In Mansfield Park, you will recall, the young people plan to mount a production of the play Lovers' Vows during the absence of Sir Thomas in Antigua.

There is nothing inherently wrong in young people wishing to indulge in theatricals. At the beginning, even Fanny is excited ‘for she had never seen even half a play’.

But they do wrong in three ways. They plan to perform a frivolous play while their father is in peril on the high seas. They cause considerable disruption to rooms and furnishings (not least their father’s own room), even though they know in their hearts that he would be displeased by this. Most wrong of all, however, is the impropriety of having the young ladies of the party act in the kinds of scenes to be found in Lovers’ Vows.

In case you may be interested in what the play is about, here is a summary for you.

In Act I, we meet Agatha who is begging breakfast from the tavern owner where she has spent her last farthing. He suggests that she beg and proceeds to show her how. The rich farmer he approaches refuses. The poor egg girl Agatha approaches has no money but promises a three-pence when she returns from selling her eggs. The third stranger is Frederick, who, recognizing Agatha's need, offers her money immediately. He is returning, on furlough from the army, in order to obtain his birth certificate. She recognizes him as her son. Agatha tells him he has no birth certificate because she was not able to name his father. Frederick demands to know who his father was and Agatha tells him. By now it is time to find shelter for the night. The tavern owner refuses to accept them as they have no money. They then request shelter at a nearby cottage. The Cottagers accept them willingly.

In Act II, during the Cottagers’ conversation, Agatha and Frederick discover that the local Baron (Frederick's father) has returned to his castle and that his wife is dead. The scene changes to the castle where the Baron is having breakfast and awaiting his guest, Count Cassel, to join him. We learn that the guest is effeminate, foolish and wealthy. Amelia, the Baron's daughter, joins her father and is very respectful. The Baron questions Amelia in order to ascertain her attitude about Count Cassel. Amelia's answers are ambiguous. He suggests that Amelia meet with Anhalt so that he can instruct her about matrimony. Count Cassel enters and greets Amelia lavishly. His conversation with both Amelia and the Baron displays a foolish conceit. Mr. Anhalt enters. Amelia and then Count Cassel leave. The Baron and Count Cassel intend to go shooting. The Baron wants Mr. Anhalt to instruct Amelia but also to ascertain her feelings about Count Cassel. Although the Baron knows Count Cassel is financially secure, he does not wish to impose him on Amelia. It must be her choice. He desires that Amelia marry so that he may have a son. There is an implication that Anhalt is also looking for the Baron's natural son. The Baron compliments Anhalt by considering that had he had a tutor as fine as Anhalt he would not have been as foolish when he was young. He might have made wiser decisions.

In Act III, the first scene has Frederick returning to his Mother, disappointed because his begging has produced such paltry results. The Baron and the Count enter the scene. The Baron is upset with the Count because his slowness has caused the dogs to lose the scent. When Frederick approaches the Baron for some money for his Mother, the Baron chastises him for begging instead of pursuing his regimental duties but he gives him a small sum. Frederick berates the Baron and insists on one dollar at least. The Baron turns to leave. Frederick seizes the Baron by the throat and demands his money or his life. The Baron calls upon the gamekeepers and they seize the soldier. The Baron orders that the man be taken to the castle and locked in a tower. Frederick begs that at least his Mother be given some money as he is dragged away. The Baron remarks upon the ‘well looking youth’ and orders one of his men to investigate the cottages to find the woman.

We move to a room in the Castle. Mr. Anhalt joins Amelia to speak to her of Count Cassel and matrimony. She wishes to hear of matrimony and when Anhalt asks of which, the good side or the bad side, Amelia chooses the good. Anhalt describes an ideal marriage state and Amelia agrees to marry. Anhalt insists that she must hear of both sides before she makes her decision. He then describes a poor marriage and Amelia says then she will not marry. Anhalt questions whether she will ever fall in love. She answers that she is in love, but not with Count Cassel. Amelia banters with Mr. Anhalt until she gets him to admit that he loves her, but that it is an impossible love – a love her father would never accept, but Amelia does not agree with this conclusion.

They are interrupted by the butler: He tells of the Baron's narrow escape and a young man's incarceration. The Baron enters. Amelia congratulates him upon his escape but the Baron is more interested in other things. He questions the two about their conversation on matrimony. Their replies confuse and irritate him and he tries to leave. Before Anhalt leaves, Amelia extracts the promise from her father that he will suffer her to be guided by her affections when considering matrimony. Amelia delays him - he thinks to plead for the young man - but she wishes to plead for two young men. The Baron leaves in exasperation. Amelia challenges the butler about how the prisoner has been fed. When she learns that his meal was bread and water, she is upset. She intends to go to the wine cellar.

Act IV begins in a prison at the castle. Frederick is alone, bemoaning his situation since arriving in his native land. Amelia approaches with a basket covered with a napkin. She offers Frederick wine and food but he begs that it be sent to his dying mother who is with the cottager, Hubert. Amelia asks if Frederick intended to kill her father and Frederick insists that he did not. Frederick asks: ‘Who is your father?’ He is shocked to discover that he has attacked his own father. Frightened by Frederick's reaction, Amelia leaves, as Anhalt enters. He tells Frederick that the Baron has investigated his story and found it to be true. The Baron is prepared to be lenient with him. Frederick requests a private meeting with the Baron. In the next scene, the Baron is anxious to know about his daughter's willingness to marry Count Cassel. Amelia hates Cassel because he had bragged about using so many women. The Baron insists that be was boasting. Amelia speaks of a case about which the butler knows the particulars. The butler verifies the story and even offers to produce the father of the girl. The Baron confronts the Count, who wonders that the Baron knows of nobody else who acted in such a way: the Baron admits that he did. The Baron says the incident was regretted, but has to admit to the Count that he lives as if nothing had happened. It was not until he matured that he realized his errors. He suggests that Count Cassel wait until he matures before he marries Amelia. Count Cassel is unwilling to do that. Amelia returns to her father and asks whom she should marry. The Baron has no answer but, of course, Amelia has. She tells her father she wishes to marry Mr. Anhalt. Anhalt joins them and Amelia leaves. He wants the Baron to see Frederick. Reluctantly, the Baron agrees and Anhalt leaves. The Baron assumes that Frederick has come to plead for his life in deference to his Mother's needs. Frederick pleads instead based on his Father's cruelty. In the discussion that ensues the Baron discovers that Frederick is his natural son. As Frederick taunts his father about the results due to his youthful indiscretion, the Baron shouts in pain. Anhalt rushes in for fear Frederick has physically attacked the Baron. The chastised Baron explains and begs Anhalt to go with Frederick to his mother and to do that which his heart decides. The Baron tells two of his servants to accompany them and to treat Frederick as if he were his son.

In Act V, in the cottage Agatha is concerned as to the whereabouts of her son and continually implores the Cottager to look out for him. The Cottager's wife does not understand why she is so upset as she has a purse of gold. Agatha continues to worry about her son but she is also confused as to why the Baron has sent her so much money. The Cottager returns to say Frederick is not in view but the new rector is and perhaps he may visit. Anhalt enters and begins to question Agatha who is reluctant to speak in front of the Cottagers. The Cottagers leave and Agatha discovers that Anhalt has been in search of her at the Baron's request. Agatha asks Anhalt who he thinks she is? His answer is 'Agatha Friburg'. When Agatha discovers from whom the purse of gold had been sent, she refuses it. She states that her honour has never been for sale. Anhalt explains that when the purse was sent, the recipient was unknown to him, the mother of a stranger begging. Neither knew the other. Also, Anhalt explains how it was that the Baron was separated from her. Agatha asks the whereabouts of Frederick and Anhalt answers that he is at the castle. Agatha asks whether the Baron and his son know one another now. Anhalt confirms they do but he does not know how they fare. Anhalt tells Agatha that the Baron wishes her to come to the castle. As they leave, the purse of gold is given to the Cottagers in payment for their generous spirit. Back at the castle, the Baron tells Frederick that he is to be acknowledged as his son and his heir. Frederick asks what is to become of his mother. The Baron says Agatha shall be given her own estate to be used as she wishes. Frederick asks by what name shall she so live and in what capacity. The Baron says that can be settled later. Frederick requests permission to leave but states that his fate will never be separated from his mother's. He leaves. The Baron tells Anhalt that his conscience and himself are at variance. Anhalt replies that conscience is always right. The Baron then reviews his actions. He has accepted Frederick as his son and heir and asks Anhalt if he did right. Anhalt agrees. Anhalt insists that the Baron must marry Agatha. The Baron resists. Anhalt makes the Baron agree that Agatha was always virtuous; that he pledged his honour; and that he called on God as his witness. Anhalt points out that that Witness sees him now. And that it is in the Baron's power to redeem his pledge by marrying Agatha and his reward will be the sweetness that Agatha will bring into his life. The Baron agrees to the marriage, but Anhalt is not yet finished. He asks, ‘Where is the wedding to be?’ When the Baron replies that it will be in the castle. Anhalt objects and says that the wedding must take place before the village. The Baron consents. Amelia enters and the Baron tells her that she has a brother and that she has lost one-half her inheritance. Amelia takes both statements complacently. Amelia and Anhalt are rewarded by the Baron's consent to their betrothal. The Baron must now see Agatha; and he does so reluctantly. But when they meet Agatha forgives him - and everyone lives happily ever after!