Catherine Gore, Mothers and Daughters: A Tale of the Year 1830. (London, Colburn and Bentley, 1831)
Plot synopsis by Barbara Edwards
Lady Maria de Vesci, descended from impoverished earls, elopes with Charles Willingham, eldest son of Sir Claude, and heir to Heddeston Court. This is not a romantic and fashionable 'love match'; on the contrary, Lady Maria's motives are entirely mercenary. After many disappointing London seasons and no bidders in the marriage market, she faces a life of suffocating spinsterhood as companion to her aged mother.
Furious with the couple, Sir Claude Willingham remains for a long while opposed to the match. Finally he relents, and with their two young daughters, Charles and Maria are received at Heddeston Court supplanting Joseph Willingham, favoured younger son, and his wife Sophia. Lady Maria and Sophia are at once locked into battle. Sophia, the daughter of the local schoolmaster, acutely aware of her inferior status, is easily out - manoeuvred by her social superior, Lady Maria. A daughter and son is born to each, Sir Claude dies, and Charles succeeds to the title, but soon after is reduced to a state of 'imbecility' after a fall from his horse.
Lady Maria reigns supreme at Heddeston Court, until the deaths of her son and her husband prompts her swift departure from Heddeston to establish herself, in Europe, with her two eldest daughters, Claudia and Eleanor. Lady Maria's plan is to create accomplished, desirable girls for men of rank and fortune, but in fact she creates cold-hearted beauties. Minnie, youngest daughter of Lady Maria, is left behind in England with her two young cousins, Charles and Mary Willingham.
Upon the Willinghams return from a glittering whirl of European cities, their first London season creates a huge stir of interest. Claudia's growing intimacy with the Duke of Lisbourgh, at his country seat, attracts gossips and speculation which alerts the vigilance of his relatives, determined to scupper the fortune hunter's plans. Lady Robert Lorton, society hostess and woman of fashion, befriends the beautiful sisters and counsels Eleanor as to the fickleness of the Duke's intentions towards Claudia.
Back in London, the heady season continues apace, with society balls, Wednesday's at Almacks, ices at Gunter's and attendance at the opera keeping the fashionable permanently on show. Once again, Lady Robert tries to warn a friend, society heiress, Lucy Barringhurst, of the gossip surrounding her name with Mr. Titchbourne, a noted dandy.
Mary Willingham, the plain, pious daughter of Sir Joseph and Lady Sophia, hopelessly in love with cousin Frederick Lorimar, is forced to witness his attentions towards the worldly Eleanor, who rebuffs his declaration of love. Lady Maria's household is thrown into disarray, as Claudia's hopes of future Duchess of Lisbourgh are dashed with the news of his impending marriage to another, and she goes into a decline. Eleanor, determined to retain the family's precarious foothold in fashionable society, attempts to extract a proposal from Sir William Wyndham, rich widower, only to discover his desire for her mouse like cousin, Mary Willingham.
With their failures and the London season closing behind them, the Willinghams retreat to Italy for a number of years, until the death of old General de Vesci leaves Minnie a rich heiress. Their fortunes reversed, the Willinghams return to London prepared for a fresh attack on the marriage market. They believe their chances good, but are revealed to be self-deluding and mercenary in their motives.
At a ball, Lady Robert alerts them to the consequences of Lucy Barringhurst's indiscretion with Mr. Titchbourne. Cast out from her family and society, she faces impending death. They hurry to Mary Willingham to enlist her support for the dying Lucy's final request that she might see her children. However, the young Charles Willingham, conscious of his desire for Minnie, intervenes in the matter and enables the reconciliation to take place, after which Lady Lucy dies. Charles and Minnie are happily united. Frederick Lorimar, once rejected by Eleanor, returns a rich man and recognising the superiority of his cousin's character, claims the hand of Mary Willingham.
The season closes once again, with Claudia and Eleanor unmatched. Exposed as hard hearted and predatory marriage seekers, they find their prospects ruined by Lady Maria's unfeminine influence and arrogant worldly lifestyle.