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Corvey ‘Adopt an Author’| Sarah Harriet Burney

The Corvey Project at
Sheffield Hallam University

Synopsis of The Shipwreck, vol. 1 of Tales of Fancy (1816-20) by Sarah Harriet Burney; Claire Murley, May 1998

This tale is dedicated to Lady Crewe, a friend of the Burney family. In a prefatory letter dated December 1, 1815, Sarah Harriet Burney tells Lady Crewe that being allowed to dedicate the volume to her is a `tribute of affection' to her father's memory. She asks Lady Crewe to try and believe in the possibility of the circumstances of her story, saying that before she began she consulted a naval officer on the likelihood of such an island existing. She writes, `I began to love my island' and asks that Lady Crewe do so too, whilst forgiving her for not dedicating a story to her that is more based on character differences and manners (v-viii).

Before the first chapter there is a passage from Ariosto translated into English, on having faith through adversity. At the start of each subsequent chapter there are quotations reflecting the events of the story, from Stanley, Shakespeare, Milton, Southey, Mason, Scott, Burns, Charlotte Smith, Denham, and Gray.

The tale proper starts with a fleet of ships sailing from England to the Bengal. Being wartime, it took a more southerly track than usual to avoid the enemy. One ship was separated from the fleet during a fierce storm, and wrecked upon rocks in the Indian Ocean. Lady Earlingford was aboard the ship, sailing to join her husband in Hindostan. With her was their daughter Viola. As the ship began to break up, Lady Earlingford ordered that she and her daughter be lashed to the ship's mast.

At dawn they were washed up on a small island where Lady Earlingford was concerned about the possible presence of savages. On the shore they found a trunk belonging to her nephew Edmund, a sailor who had gone from their ship to another in the fleet just before the storm. In it they found many useful things, including a selection of books.

Lady Earlingford and Viola found a cave for shelter and explored the island, convinced that it was uninhabited. Living on fruit and shellfish they were undisturbed for three weeks. On a walk one day a pheasant that had been hit by an arrow landed near them. Terrified they ran back to the cave. In darkness Lady Earlingford returned to where they had seen the pheasant. There she found a brace of dead birds and saw that Viola's copy of Shakespeare plays, which she had left in her hurry, had disappeared.

Viola heard voices and convinced her mother that the inhabitants of the island might be gentle. Lady Earlingford went in search of them and found a man and young boy, both English and survivors from their ship. The man was reading Viola's book. Lady Earlingford tried to retreat without talking to the man as she recognised him as Mr Fitz Aymer, who had previously upset their family. He asked her to forget their differences in this situation and told her that the boy, Felix, was the son of a lady who died on the ship.

Lady Earlingford then returned to Viola who knew nothing of the poor opinion her family had of Mr Fitz Aymer. For her safety, Lady Earlingford told Viola that she must disguise herself as her cousin Edmund, and made an outfit from the materials in his trunk. The next day they visited the hut that Mr Fitz Aymer had built, and Lady Earlingford was impressed with his ingenuity.

Mr Fitz Aymer had been hoping that Viola would be her companion, having seen her at a distance on the ship and heard many men talk of her beauty. The reason for her family's dislike of him was that he was wrongly thought to have behaved dishonourably towards a married niece of Lord Earlingford's. He was glad to have the company of Lady Earlingford and `Edmund' and entreated them to spend the evenings with him.

Gradually Lady Earlingford began to trust Mr Fitz Aymer. When Viola questioned her about him she replied she did not think him a bad person then, but could not say what he would be like back in society. Mr Fitz Aymer asked `Edmund' what had happened to Viola, saying that he did not believe they could behave as they did now if in fact she were dead. Viola told him they believed her to be safe with her father, resulting from plans made by her mother.

Lady Earlingford had noticed the admiration that Viola had for Fitz Aymer and was concerned that should they become close and then escape the island, her father would not approve, having already found a possible husband for her.

Having heard a sound, Fitz Aymer went to investigate and discovered the Lamottes, a French father and son, villains who had been cast off from another ship. Viola later saved Fitz Aymer from being attacked by them, fetching a pistol from Edmund's trunk. Lady Earlingford became ill and, realising that she was near to death, asked for paper to write to her husband. She revealed Viola's true identity and made Fitz Aymer swear to protect her. She gave the letter to Viola telling her to read it and destroy it if she wished. Lady Earlingford died shortly afterwards and was buried underneath a banyan tree.

A passing ship noticed signals from the island and a rowing boat was sent to rescue them. Viola was at the cave at the time and the younger Lamotte persuaded the crew to head back for the ship with him but without Viola and Fitz Aymer, who had gone to find her. They left behind an Englishman called Watson who had tried to prevent the crew from returning to the ship.

Watson and Mr. Fitz Aymer built a boat, and before they left the island, Fitz Aymer and Viola affirmed their love for one another. Within a few days they were welcomed aboard an English ship sailing on a homeward journey and treated kindly by the passengers. To avoid scandal they said that Viola, having reassumed female dress, was Fitz Aymer's sister. Felix was reunited with his father, Colonel Beauchamp, who was on board the ship. He was a friend of Mr Fitz Aymer's and told him that Viola's father had resigned his job and returned to England broken-hearted.

Also on board the ship was a passenger named Mr. Melbourne, who Colonel Beauchamp told Mr. Fitz Aymer was the man Lord Earlingford intended Viola to marry. Fitz Aymer tried to persuade Viola to marry him before they saw her father. Viola refused, assuring him of her love. They returned to London, to the house of Colonel Beauchamp's sister. Colonel Beauchamp met the next day with Viola's father, telling him the story of the young man who had saved his son's life and been deserted on an island with a mother and daughter from the wreck. He also had with him the letter from Lady Earlingford, which Viola had read, saying that Mr. Fitz Aymer was a worthy character. Finally Colonel Beauchamp revealed the truth to Lord Earlingford, who was overjoyed and approved Fitz Aymer's marriage to his daughter. The idea of her marrying Mr Melbourne had never been formal, and he was in love with Mrs. Melross, who was now a widow; he is now free to marry her and does.