Plot Synopsis by Stacy Weir of Speculation (1834) by Julia Pardoe.
Julia Pardoe’s fierce critique of marriage within a wealthy, fashionable and vain society examines the relationships betwee three couples and the circumstances which lead them to come together and consider marriage. The novel begins with a conversation between the bachelor Frank Harcourt and his affluent friend Joseph Nichols. As an unemployed barrister, Harcourt has found himself in quite a desperate financial state, and is unable to find a solution. Nichols believes that Harcourt’s only hope of acquiring money in a short space of time is to marry a rich woman who will support him. Initially Harcourt dismisses the idea of getting married to a woman solely for money. However, by the end of the first chapter Frank Harcourt begins refining his appearance by paying a visit to his tailor.
A week after his conversation with Joseph Nichols, Harcourt is told by Marmaduke Marsden that there is an old widow who has access to six or seven thousand pounds a year who is looking for a barrister to do business with. Harcourt seizes his opportunity and volunteers himself for the job. With the money he earns he is able to pay off some of the debts he holds with his landlord/lady and his tailor. Harcourt and the widow strike up a friendship. He pays her regular visits and plans to charm her into marriage so that he can become as affluent as the gentlemen he presumes to be his peers. During this time Frank Harcourt briefly remembers Lady Clara Ashburnham whom he arrogantly assumes to be in love with him.
Lady Clara Ashburnham’s family are also in need of some financial help. Lady Clara’s father, the Earl of Ashburnham, has accrued large gambling debts. He convinces Clara to use her influential title and family name to ensnare a rich husband who can help the family financially. At a society party Frank Harcourt introduces Lady Clara to his friend Joseph Nichols. He is immediately impressed by her family name and title. She is in turn preoccupied with the knowledge that he will have two hundred and fifty thousand pounds on the death of his only relative. Friends and family convince them both that they are well suited. Lady Clara will be one of the richest women in London and Nichols will have the family connection, power and respect within society that his money cannot buy.
Later in the novel we are introduced to Mortimer Eustace. He is an orphan and, like Harcourt, he is not financially successful. He too has problems with his landlord in terms of debts. However, he finds a job that enables him to pay off those debts. He moves in the same high society circles as Frank Harcourt and Joseph Nichols but uses an assumed name rather than his own. This is due to the fact that his peers would not accept him if they knew which family he came from. Those of high society know Mortimer Eustace as Mr. Smithson throughout the novel.
Towards the end of the first volume of Speculation, we are introduced to Agnes Davenel. She is the beautiful young orphan granddaughter of a Mrs. Sydenham. Agnes is the daughter of Ellen and Henry Davenel who are both deceased. In the novel we learn how Mrs. Sydenham disowned her only surviving child because she disagreed with her relationship with Henry Davenel as his navy career caused her to travel far from her mother. Due to the fact that Ellen Davenel died before Mrs. Sydenham could be reunited with her, Agnes Davenel is particularly special to her grandmother.
As Agnes and her grandmother are not affluent enough to have servants, this means that Agnes goes about town without a chaperone or ‘companion’. One particular day the arrogant Frank Harcourt sees Agnes and is struck by her innocent beauty. He attempts to hold a conversation with her against her will. At that moment Mortimer Eustace passes by and sees Agnes being assaulted and rescues her from the stranger’s grasp. He escorts her home and in turn falls in love with her. Being an orphan himself who is quite poor and on the fringes of a snobbish society he feels drawn to her. However, Mrs. Sydenham puts an end to his hopes of companionship. She is again reluctant to lose her only surviving relative to a predatory male. Without Agnes' knowledge, Mrs. Sydenham refuses Eustace access to the young woman, but he persists.
During this time Frank Harcourt is delaying any plans to marry the rich widow Mrs. Wilkins. He convinces himself that he is in love with the young lady he met in the street. This lady is of course Agnes Davenel. However, when his friend Joseph Nichols displays his well-formed plans to marry Lady Clara Ashburnham, Harcourt is inspired to persevere with Mrs. Wilkins the rich old widow.
Mrs. Wilkins lives alone apart from Miss Parsons who is employed to be the widow’s attendant. Miss Parsons is extremely suspicious of Harcourt’s motives when visiting Mrs. Wilkins and fears that she is being taken advantage of. Mrs. Wilkins’ only existing relative Everard shares Miss Parsons’ doubts about Frank Harcourt. However, he is living in Naples and is only able to communicate with his aunt by way of letter. Harcourt is aware of Everard’s existence and deems him an obstacle or threat to him inheriting the widow’s fortune in the future. Fortunately for Harcourt, Everard dies, leaving Mrs. Wilkins with no relatives to inherit her money. Frank Harcourt then asks her to marry him and she later agrees. They discuss various domestic arrangements such as whether or not they will need Miss Parsons. Harcourt believes that Miss Parsons will remain in the house in order to keep Mrs Wilkins company. He secretly plans to be away from his fiancé a lot once they are married.
Joseph Nichols marries Lady Clara and they have an extravagant celebration. However, on their wedding night, Lady Clara reveals that she does not love Nichols and she has made a mistake. Nichols is shocked and pleads with Clara to attempt to make their marriage work, but she has no intention of doing this. She does however intend taking a great deal of his money during their separation. After their wedding, the couple stay together for the sake of ‘appearances’, but begin to despise each other. Nichols finally leaves London, and becomes much happier. Lady Clara remains with her family who continue to have financial trouble despite the money they receive from Nichols.
Mrs. Sydenham falls gravely ill. On her deathbed she summons Mortimer Eustace and requests that he look after Agnes after her death as she will be all alone in the world. Obviously, Mortimer is delighted at the prospect of Agnes becoming like a sister to him and agrees. Mrs. Sydenham dies shortly afterwards and Mortimer talks with Agnes about the prospect of them being married. Agnes admits that she has genuine feelings for Mortimer and is happy about the prospect of them becoming married. In the meantime Mortimer Eustace goes back to his home where he will work until he has enough money for the two to marry. Agnes leaves her home where her grandmother died to live with her distant relative Mrs. Wilkins.
This Mrs. Wilkins happens to be the same woman whom Harcourt plans to marry. He is both surprised and delighted to find that the young innocent girl that caught his attention in the street will be living in his future home. He then plans to take advantage of the situation by taking advantages of Agnes. Mrs. Wilkins is all too aware of her relative’s beauty and the effect it may have on her fiancé. To combat this she instructs Agnes that she is not to flirt or talk to Harcourt unless absolutely necessary. Agnes begins to feel very unhappy about the prospect of living with Mrs. Wilkins. Harcourt often visits the house and arrogantly torments her.
Meanwhile, Eustace learns that he is in fact the relation/son of a rich aristocrat who wants to be his benefactor, helping him to marry Agnes immediately. Mortimer sends a letter to Agnes informing her that they will be able to get married, but Mrs. Wilkins destroys it before Agnes reads it.
Living with Mrs. Wilkins, Agnes becomes more and more unhappy. One day she pleads with her relative not to marry Harcourt. She tells Mrs. Wilkins about the day when Harcourt assaulted her. As a result Mrs. Wilkins confronts her fiancé with the information. Harcourt pleads with her not to believe Agnes, but Mrs Wilkins does not believe him. She throws down her will and tells him that he will never get any of her money. As a result of this Harcourt is enraged and tells the widow that he does not love her and had every intention of marrying her solely for her money. Mrs Wilkins collapses and has a stroke. Harcourt leaves the house. Mrs. Wilkins, who was of poor health anyway, dies. She leaves Agnes a small amount of money and the bulk of her estate to a distant relative that no one knew of except her. This relative is Mortimer Eustace. Agnes and Mortimer get married and become rich members of high society. They are the only couple to end the novel with a happy resolution to their relationship.