Synopsis of Louisa; or, the Cottage on the Moor by Elizabeth Helme (1787; Corvey edition 1789); Sharon Watson, May 1998
The illustration of this eighteenth century novel creates a gothic image, even before the reader has begun to examine the text. It displays a young lady entering a cottage in the darkness of night, with the only light being the illumination of the moon. However, though the cottage exists as a place of importance within the two volumes of this novel, representing safety and escapism, it is of no real value until the reader becomes acquainted with the heroine Louisa and her saviours who reside within the humble cottage. The author, by way of preface, instructs her audience as to what they might expect from the text. In short, they will witness her attempt to expose vice through her work and attribute sensibility to her heroine through the developments of the plot. Each of the two volumes belonging to 'Louisa' is separated into small chapters. Preceding each, there is without exception a piece of poetry from various sources which summarises the themes of the chapter.
Louisa, the central character, arrives at the 'Cottage on the Moor' after fleeing from an incident during which she was endeavouring to protect her virtue. Arriving at the cottage, Louisa is welcomed by its mistress, Mrs Rivers, and her housekeeper, Mary Bennett. They observe blood on her sleeve but believe that she will recall her tale after she has recovered. Mrs. Rivers - Maria - sees some of her own melancholy in Louisa and begins her narrative to explain the reasons for her own sadness. After the loss of her mother and father at a relatively young age, Maria was placed in a boarding school and cared for by Mr. and Mrs. Rivers. Sometime later, Mr. Rivers' nephew Henry arrived, and Maria fell deeply in love. Whilst out walking alone one evening, she stumbled upon a letter intended for a gentleman who was to lure her away from Henry. This letter made it clear that the intentions of her benefactor - Mr Rivers - were to bestow more than fatherly affections upon her. On the advice of Mrs. Rivers, who believes her husband only married her for financial gain, Henry and Maria eloped to Scotland where they were married. Mr. Rivers was informed of this event after its occurrence, and though seemingly agreeable, it is not very long before he enticed Henry to India under false pretenses, leaving a pregnant Maria behind. She gave birth to a daughter whom she was informed is dead. She also heard that her husband passed away. She was engulfed by grief. Mr. Rivers instructed Mary Bennett, Maria's attendant, to take Maria away, allowing Mr Bennett, Mary's husband, to accompany them. They built a cottage in Kendal and after Mr. Bennett's death the two women continued to reside there.
Shortly following Maria's recounting her sombre tale, Louisa begins her own narrative and discloses her reasons for the incident which has left her stained by the blood of another. Orphaned at birth, Louisa, when five, is sent by her benefactor to a convent where she is cared for by the abbess Madame du Saint. During her residence, she becomes acquainted with a young girl named Julia who has been sent to the convent by her mother, the Countess of Melville. During her stay, Louisa develops close relationships with the mother and daughter and when Julia leaves the convent Louisa takes leave from the convent and soon becomes acquainted with Julia's brother, Augustus Gray, and his two companions, Lord Castlebrook and Mr. Danvers. Although it seems that Danvers pursues Louisa, Augustus steals her heart, though she vows to keep this a secret. Louisa had hoped for Lady Melville to become her benefactress, but she is removed from the convent by her own benefactor's assistant, Mrs. Masters. On the journey home, they stop at an inn. The following morning, whilst once again travelling, the person seated next to her, whom she believes is Mrs. Masters, is revealed to be Mr. Danvers. From this closing moment of the first volume the readers are able to guess that this use of disguise will not be the only such occurrence in this novel.
Louisa's narrative continues, and she describes to the amiable Mrs. Rivers how a stranger saved her from the lecherous Mr. Danvers and escorted her to the real Mrs. Masters. From there, she travelled onward to the benefactor who had paid for her term in the convent. Though Lord Danford, her benefactor, is temperamental, Louisa believes he is her father. She showers him with politeness only to find that he wants to ravish her. During the fracas that then arises, she accidentally stabs him with some nearby scissors. She quickly escapes, arriving at Mrs. Rivers cottage.
The narrative then moves from the recalling of past events to the present. Mrs. Rivers persuades Louisa to write to her friend Julia. Soon afterwards, Louisa receives a reply inviting her to go to stay with the Melvilles. On her journey, she sees the stranger who had been her saviour, Mr. Belmont. He informs Lady Melville that he will confront Lord Danford regarding Louisa's relations. Meanwhile, Augustus and Danvers, who are both in pursuit of Louisa's affections, arrange a duel. They are both injured, and Louisa enters a coma-like state, causing Mrs. Rivers to visit her. The plot thickens, true identities are revealed and relationships resumed to their correct status.
Upon seeing Mr. Belmont, Mrs. Rivers is overwhelmed, as he is the husband, Henry Rivers, she had believed to be dead. Mr. Belmont reveals that Lord Danford and Mr. Rivers are in actual fact the same person, and that they had been duped by him. He had only remained in India and then Europe after persuasion by Lord Danford/Mr. Rivers informing him that his wife and daughter were dead.
The revelation causes Danford to commit suicide, but he leaves a note confirming that Louisa is the daughter of Maria and Henry Rivers and that she is in fact his own niece. All are happily united. The delirium of the final chapter is sealed by the joint wedding ceremonies of Julia Melville to Lord Castlebrook and Augustus to Louisa Rivers and wealth is distributed accordingly. Evidently, one of the major themes of this novel is the restoration of correct rank and status, the very thing which had prevented Louisa from declaring her profound love to Augustus.