Synopsis by Michaela Rosenthall of The Flatterer; or false friendship: A Tale, by Mary Anne Hedge
Clara Pemberton, the eldest daughter of six children loses her mother before the age of ten. Her father, who practices law, allows a distant relative of Clara's mother, Mrs Fullerton, a widow with an ample fortune, to accept Clara as her ward. She is immediately charmed with Clara's manners and beauty and finances her education in a boarding school. Clara is delighted with the situation as she aspires through flattery and her display of feminine accomplishments to charm all who come into contact with her who can advance her social status.
Mrs Fullerton dies unexpectedly when Clara is sixteen. Not having the opportunity to settle her financial affairs as she intended, her fortune passes to the nearest living relative, Mr Lascells, who grants Clara an annuity of £30 as a mark of respect to Mrs Fullerton and invites her to spend some time with his family at the estate. Clara is furious with her decline in fortune and although she accepts the invitation, she writes a cruel and revealing letter about her former patroness to a school acquaintance Caroline Forbes. In this letter, we also learn of her meeting with Mrs Bosville, a schoolmistress who was particularly fond of Clara and completely deceived as to Clara's true nature. We are given an account of Mrs Bosville's marriage, her husband's strength of character and how her trusting nature has been cultivated as a result of a secluded upbringing. Mrs Bosville has been charmed enough to offer Clara a resident position with her family as a companion and teacher to her eleven year old step-daughter Julia, a child without malice but with a tendency to self indulgence.
Clara is delighted to be residing with Mrs Bosville at leisure again and soon learns that Julia will inherit a large fortune independently from her mother. Clara begins to plot how she may obtain permanent influence over Julia and share in this good fortune. Opportunely for Clara, Mrs Bosville learns by letter of the imminent return of her husband, a barrister whose work had taken him abroad, therefore to prove that Julia has been progressing in her studies, which would please her father, Clara is asked to teach Julia to draw a picture of the Madonna's head. Clara flatters Julia into idleness and draws the head on her behalf, allowing Julia to receive praise for what she has not achieved. Clara believes she has now succeeded in securing Julia's friendship and confidence.
Clara encourages Julia to be idle in all her studies. However, Julia feels terrible guilt in not progressing with her work and begins to avoid her gentle stepmother's company rather than lie directly to her. This situation works to Clara's advantage as Julia becomes more dependent on her false friendship to maintain the deceit of her progress and Mrs Bosville believes this behaviour to be a sign of a natural attachment to Clara.
A further letter arrives from Mr Bosville advising he has reached London and will arrive home shortly. Returning with Mr Bosville is the twelve-year-old daughter of his friend Dr Richmond. Emily is virtuous and honest and is to stay with the Bosvilles whilst her father travels to Edinburgh on business. Clara obtains Julia's reassurance that Emily will not replace her in Julia's affections, however Julia cannot help becoming attached to the amiable girl. Emily is not affected by Clara's flattery. She challenges Clara’s manner openly but without malice, which helps to release the psychological hold Clara has over Julia. As a result, Julia draws her own version of the Madonna's head and presents this to her father.
Mr Bosville learns of the false friendship of Clara when he overhears Clara praising Julia in her piano skills when she is clearly deficient. He resolves to reveal the true nature of Clara to his wife rather than demand her removal. Clara receives word that her father is gravely ill and has to leave the household. This provides an opportunity for Mr Bosville to appraise his wife of her true nature. The children also discover Clara's hidden diary detailing her intimate schemes of flattery and this resolves Mrs Bosville to write to Clara acknowledging they are aware of her true nature yet bestowing on her a gift of £500 in recognition of their previous friendship.