Synopsis of Preference (1824) by Selina Davenport; Louise Watkins, May 1998.
This novel starts with the arrival of Mrs Maitland and her daughters Catharine and Helen to a lodging house in London owned by Betsy and Billy Saunders. Betsy surmises that a possible connection exists between her new tenants and a Captain Kenneth Maitland, now deceased. Betsy and Billy knew Kenneth Maitland in his early life when he was the favoured second son of Lord Winterdale. They had both worked on the estate of the grand family and Billy, whilst at sea, had lost his leg in the same battle in which Captain Maitland was killed.
Through Betsy we learn that Kenneth Maitland was much revered and esteemed by family, friends and servants alike. However, he fell in love with the very beautiful daughter of the local bailiff and his family did not approve of the match. In the end they ran away to Scotland and got married, this action resulting in his being ostracized from his family for the rest of his life.
Betsy's assumption in respect of the connection between her old master and her new tenants was right. Mrs Maitland is the widow of Captain Maitland and Catharine and Helen are his daughters. Mrs Maitland is very ill and we are later told that her reason for coming to London is to secure her daughters' future after her death. To this end, she writes to Admiral Boscawen at Great George Street asking for his help.
The Admiral was close to Captain Maitland in the Navy and also knows Lady Glencairn, Maitland's sister and the only remaining heir. Mrs Maitland asks the Admiral to appeal to Lady Glencairn, hoping that she will forgive her late brother's actions and take her nieces back into the family. The Admiral promises his help and also promises that if he fails with Lady Glencairn, he will personally take on the care of the two girls as if they were his own.
Before Lady Glencairn's forgiveness can be sought, Mrs Maitland dies. The Admiral is as good as his word and Catharine and Helen go to live with him, where they are cared for in their grief. He solicits help from his sister Dorothy (slightly eccentric who loves animals) and another adopted ward (who may possibly be his actual son), a young man by the name of Frederic St. Clair. The girls become much loved in the household and there is hope that Frederic may marry one of them. When asked by the Admiral which sister he prefers, he declines to make a choice.
Eventually the Admiral does write to Lady Glencairn and on her return from her estate in Scotland, she agrees to have the sisters live with her at St. James Square. Lady Glencairn accedes not from a sense of duty towards her orphaned nieces but more because of social necessity. She cannot allow a blood relation to live off someone else's money.
Before leaving the Admiral, the sisters promise to stay in close contact. Helen, his preferred choice, is given a ring and asked not to take it off for a ring of betrothal without his consent. He secretly wants a match between Frederic and Helen, who seem very well suited.
Lady Glencairn expects her nieces to be rustic and uneducated and is surprised when they turn out to be lovely accomplished young ladies. Although she doesn't appear outwardly to have much affection for her nieces, she does become quite fond of them. She is an ambitious woman and decides that she wants good marriages for Catharine and Helen and much of the rest of the novel concerns their loves and eventual marriages.
Helen secretly is the preferred choice of Frederic St. Clair and just before he leaves to go to sea he declares his love to her. She admits that she does care for him but says that she wants her freedom and doesn't want a husband who goes to sea. Helen neither fully rejects nor accepts Frederic at this point, although she does promise that she won't encourage anyone else until his return.
During his absence, gradually Helen realizes she does love Frederic. There are other parties interested in her and indeed, in Frederic. The first, Lord Charles, is a good man and a brother of a friend; she gently lets him down. The next is the ghastly Lord Beaumont, her Aunt's choice. Her forced betrothal to him makes her ill which leads to the postponement of the wedding day. During this time Frederic returns. Eventually Lady Glencairn approves of Helen and Frederic's match. They marry and have a son.
Catharine's story is more complicated. As children Helen and she were great friends with a family called the Delafields. They grew up with William and Olivia Delafield. In their teen years Catharine and William discover their love for one another. The Delafields, however, move away and William goes abroad but before he leaves, he and Catharine exchange parting gifts and promise to be true to each other.
Four years later, William returns to find that his father and sister are living in poverty and debt. William's father has squandered the family money gambling. An opportunity arises that can restore the family to their former status, but it involves William marrying a very elderly Duchess. This he does out of filial duty, even though he loves Catharine. The marriage causes scandal in society. Shame prevents William and Olivia from keeping in contact with their old friends and Catharine feels she has been betrayed and is heartbroken.
When Catharine and Helen move to their aunt's home, they find themselves again in the same social circle as William and Olivia. Helen has sympathy for their position, whilst Catharine cannot forgive William and acts coldly. In due course, however, Catharine relents, especially after she becomes a friend of William's elderly wife and understands that their relationship is similar to that of mother and son. Lady Delafield, observing William and Catharine's feelings for each other, even tells William that after her death he should try to find happiness with Catharine. Eventually the old lady does die, giving William his freedom. He goes to Catharine and she confesses that she still loves him and with time their relationship is repaired. They plan to marry.
Besides the above there are a number of smaller subplots in this text. Firstly, there is the interesting rags to riches story of the elderly Lady Delafield which provides reasoning for her marriage to the very much younger William. Secondly, there is the history of Isidore Wentworth, the adopted son of Lady Glencairn. He is the illegitimate son of the late Lord Glencairn and the result of his love affair with an Italian noble woman. Isidore eventually marries Olivia.
There is the matter of Lady Glencairn's attraction to William Delafield and marriage to Lord Rochfort and the secret love between Lord Rochfort's daughter Louisa and Edward Beresford. We also have recounted to us the lives of some comical characters: Mrs Betsy Saunders; Nanny, a servant; and Grace Kingsland, the companion to Lady Glencairn. The last is a silly, prying woman whose indiscretion is punished in a prank involving her kidnap in a carriage - not dissimilar to that suffered by Madame Duval in Fanny Burney's Evelina (1778). Lastly, we have a madwoman in the novel in the form of a tenant of Ivy cottage (Catherine and Helen's childhood home) called Miss Douglas. She has lost her mind through grief, having lost her sweetheart and two brothers in the Battle of Waterloo.