Plot Synopsis of Clarentine (1796) by Sarah Harriet Burney; Claire Murley, May 1998
Delmington House, a mansion in the Devonshire countryside, was home to the family of the recently deceased Sir James Delmington and Clarentine, his niece. She was the daughter of Sir James' only brother, who, whilst abroad, had married a rich French girl whose family then disowned her. Sir James' brother, having been written out of his father's will, wrote to Sir James for help before joining the military service of the East India Company which took him to Bengal.
His young wife died some months later. Clarentine was taken into the care of Sir James' sister, Mrs Somerset, whose husband became jealous of the affection his wife and son had for the girl. When she was six years old, Clarentine moved to live with the Delmingtons. William Somerset, although rarely at home whilst she had stayed with his parents, was fond of Clarentine because of the affection with which his mother had spoken of her.
Nine years later Clarentine's father was killed in a battle with the Mahrattas. Although not yet seventeen himself, Somerset vowed to provide for Clarentine. Mrs Harrington, Sir James' cousin, had been against Sir James' marriage, not thinking Lady Delmington rich enough for her cousin, although she was accepted by the rest of the family. She was also angry about the marriage of Clarentine's parents and disapproved of the Somersets for caring for her. Worried about providing for his children, Sir James had attempted a reconciliation with Mrs Harrington before his death, knowing her to be wealthy with no heir.
Mrs Harrington arrived to stay at Delmington House and viewed Clarentine suspiciously, concerned about the effect her beauty would have on Edgar, Lady Delmington's eldest son. She forbade Clarentine to dance with him at a ball held by Lady Delmington to celebrate the return from Eton of Edgar and his brother Frederick. Somerset arrived and persuaded her to go to the ball and dance with him.
Before Somerset departed he gave Clarentine a pocket book and told her that should her situation ever change, she could stay with his friend Mr Lenham. Frederick followed Somerset from Delmington House to join him at sea. Mrs Harrington told Lady Delmington that she suspected Clarentine of seducing Edgar. Lady Delmington defended her but told Edgar that Clarentine must only ever be a sister to him. Edgar admitted to Clarentine that he was jealous of her dancing with Somerset at the ball, and she told him that she saw them both as brothers.
Two years later, Edgar realised his mother suspected him of loving Clarentine. If Lady Delmington was present he acted distantly towards her, but when they were alone he behaved normally. Clarentine was oblivious to the reasons for this. She tried to return the pocket book to Somerset, saying she trusted Lady Delmington, but he persuaded her to keep it.
Lord Welwyn, a neighbour of the Delmington's, visited with his daughter Lady Julia Leyburne. On medical advice, he intended to take his ill son to Lisbon for a warmer climate. Lady Delmington accepted his request to care for Julia while he was away, seeing it as a good connection for the family. Julia was almost fifteen years old, pretty and content but lacking spirit and activity. After four months at Delmington House, with Clarentine's influence, her character was transformed and improved.
Edgar returned, now aged nineteen, and although he admired Julia, his affection was still for Clarentine. Lord Welwyn wrote to say that his son had died at Naples. Clarentine accompanied Julia when she returned to Welwyn Park, seven miles from Delmington House, and large and luxurious by comparison. The girls befriended a French lady living in a run-down cottage nearby, who escaped the troubles in France.
The woman, Madame d'Arzele, was staying at the cottage with her brother-in-law, Chevalier de Valcour. She had three children and was grateful for Julia's offer of assistance. Lord Welwyn's butler, Bertrand, had served her father in France, and in grateful memory of his former master had now befriended her. With Lord Welwyn's permission Julia and Clarentine found Madame d'Arzele a house. Clarentine returned to Delmington House but often visited her. One day Madame d'Arzele told her the story of her sister who was cast out of her family due to an imprudent marriage to an Englishman, and they realised that her sister was Clarentine's mother.
Edgar departed Eton for Oxford and became a regular visitor at Welwyn Park. Lord Welwyn approached Lady Delmington about the possibility of his marrying Julia. Julia was happy about this but concerned that he was cold towards her. At dinner at Welwyn Park Clarentine met Lord Welwyn's nephew, Mr Eltham, who pursued her. Mrs Harrington returned to Delmington House and prevented Clarentine from going to a fair with her cousins, Julia, and Mr Eltham. Clarentine went instead to see Madame d'Arzele, with whom she was shortly to go to Sidmouth.
That night Edgar returned home late, celebrating after winning money at gambling to pay off debts he had incurred at Oxford. He was drunk and declared his love for Clarentine. Mrs Harrington discovered them as Clarentine was trying to escape him. Clarentine was due to go that day to Sidmouth, and left without seeing anybody. Edgar subsequently became ill, and Lady Delmington wrote to Clarentine absolving her of blame, but agreeing that she should go and stay with Mr Lenham when she left Sidmouth. Clarentine corresponded often with Sophia Delmington, with whom she was close. Mr Eltham was also in Sidmouth and again pursued her.
At Sidmouth she met Mrs Hertford, who Mr Eltham warned her was not suitable company. She saw her again at Hampstead, where she was friends with Miss Barclay, who also lived with Mr Lenham. Mr Eltham declared his love for Clarentine but she refused him. Somerset's father died and left Clarentine 5000 guineas for when she came of age, and the interest from this, 250 guineas per year, to be hers until then. Mr Lenham told her also of the agreement Somerset had made to provide for her. From Sophia she learnt that Edgar was better and being attentive towards Julia.
Clarentine fell in love with Somerset but Mrs Hertford hoped to marry him herself. Miserable and upset with Somerset, Clarentine travelled to Bath with Mr Lenham's friend Mrs Denbigh. She learned that Mr Eltham and Sophia were falling gradually in love. Somerset followed her to Bath and they were reunited as friends. He told Clarentine of his love for her and they married soon afterwards.