Synopsis of The Sons of the Viscount and the Daughters of the Earl (1813) by Selina Davenport; Louise Watkins, May 1998.
This novel starts with the description of two country seats, a castle and an abbey, situated on either side of a beautiful lake. The castle belongs to the De Courci family, the abbey to the Fortescues. We are told that the houses once rang with merriment but that something happened which abruptly ended the enjoyment. The Fortescues have not resided at the abbey for some time and its grandeur is faded. The castle, too, is mostly closed off except for one wing which is inhabited by two sisters, Angeline and Elvira De Courci. Their mother's sister and their guardian, Lady Dorothea Archdale, resides with them, as does their governess Mrs Selby (who is shortly to leave) and Mrs Wilson the housekeeper.
Angeline and Elvira are orphans, their father having died in an accident and their mother quickly following him of a broken heart. We are left in no doubt that the sisters are very beautiful, elegant and accomplished. However, they are very different in character. Angeline, the youngest, is mild, gentle, intelligent and affectionate. She loves living in the country and all things natural. Elvira, on the other hand, is bold, spirited and independent and can't wait to be introduced into society in the metropolis.
Mrs Selby and Lady Dorothea, providing no explanation, have always forbidden the sisters to visit the abbey. Elvira, with the departure of Mrs Selby and increased freedom, makes secret visits with the help of Mrs Wilson. A reluctant Angeline accompanies her. Mrs Thompson, a friend of Mrs Wilson's and the Fortescue house keeper, warily welcomes them.
Soon afterwards the Fortescues return to the family seat. Lord Fortescue wants to prepare it for the nuptials of his youngest son Henry, who is very akin in character to Angeline and has similar interests. He has two other children: Sidney, who is much like Elvira, and his daughter Cecil (named after her dead aunt).
Whilst out rowing on the lake one evening the two sisters meet the two brothers and there is mutual attraction between the already obvious pairs. However, Sidney and Henry have been told by their father that they must have no contact with the De Courci family.
The two families had at one time been very close. Lord Fortescue had been due to marry Emma de Courci and his sister Cecil Fortescue had been due to marry Lord de Courci, later to become Angeline and Elvira's father. The two families would then have been joined as one. However, before the nuptials could take place, Lord De Courci dishonourably seduced Cecil. Lord Fortescue, on discovering the truth of the matter, wanted to exonerate his sister's honour, even though De Courci still wanted to marry her. He challenged the man, who had been his close friend, to a duel and injured him. Cecil died soon after, brokenhearted and violated. From this time on deadly enmity existed between the two families and Lord Fortescue was forced to give up his beloved Emma.
The plot from here really revolves around the following themes: filial duty versus honesty to one's feelings, forgiveness versus resentment, true love triumphing over adversity.
Sidney and Elvira fall in love and intend to elope. They are dissuaded from doing so by their more obedient siblings and instead promise to stay true to each other until the families are reconciled and they are able to marry. Sidney stands by his pledge, but Elvira is proved to be inconstant and easily swayed by the attentions of others. She later marries a wealthy and decent man but regrets losing Sidney to his cousin Julia, whom he turned to when Elvira rejected him. Elvira tries to recapture his affection and suggests that they abscond. Sidney is nearly persuaded, but comes to his senses and realizes that his love is now for Julia only. Elvira, still only twenty years old, dies soon after of a fever (broken heart?), in India. Her husband remarries more successfully.
Henry and Angeline, at a similar time to Sidney and Elvira, feel attraction for each other, although neither acknowledges it. Henry has promised to marry his cousin Lucinda and whilst he recognizes that Angeline would be his preferred choice, he goes ahead with the wedding and the wishes of his family. He performs his role admirably, whilst never forgetting Angeline. Angeline, meanwhile, has many suitors, some of whom would make very good matches and are deemed to be excellent by her family. However, she cannot live a lie and refuses to marry anyone if she can't have the man she really loves, Henry. Later Lucinda, Henry's wife, dies in childbirth, mainly due to her excessive love of dissipation, leaving Henry free to remarry.
There are other relationships affected by the animosity between the families, in particular that of Cecil Fortescue (Lord Fortescue's daughter) and Lord Robert Desmond (Angeline's cousin and Emma De Courci's son). They too are in love. It is through Emma, who wants to see her son happy, that the two families are reunited. Emma visits her past love Lord Fortescue and begs him to remember how they had felt about each other and also says that another generation should not suffer as they have done because of one person's regrettable action. Lord Fortescue eventually agrees and Cecil and Robert marry.
The way is now also clear for Henry and Angeline. They finally, after many interrupted moments and extensive coyness, admit their love for one another and marry. The two families are ultimately joined, many children are born and even two long-standing servants forced apart by the rift now wed and settle down happily.
There is a subplot running alongside the main one, concerning another De Courci cousin called Reginald. His father, the current Lord De Courci, has a small estate by the name of Dudley House not far from London. On this estate lives a tenant, Mrs Evelyn, who is a widow. Mrs Evelyn has three sons and one very beautiful daughter, Mary.
Lord De Courci, like his dead brother before him, is a womanizer. In trying to woo Mary, he performs favours for her three brothers. He has no intentions of marrying Mary, who is younger than his own son and not from an appropriate class, but instead tries to seduce her. She rebukes him and tells him to leave; he apologizes and promises to avoid her. This event remains a source of embarrassment to Lord Fortescue.
Reginald, Lord Fortescue's son, often accompanied his father in visiting the Evelyn household. He fell in love with Mary and after the quarrel could not refrain from seeing her in secret. He asks Mary to marry him. Lord Fortescue accidentally discovers Reginald's secret visits and betrothal. Suffering from wounded pride and shame, he demands that Reginald discard Mary. Reginald honourably refuses and is banished from the family.
Reginald and Mary marry and are happy. However, Reginald finds his banishment hard and becomes very ill. Upon hearing of his son's possible death, Lord Fortescue finally relents and accepts his own culpability as regards this situation. Another family is reconciled.
Both the main and subplot are played out against two backdrops. The rural one involves walking, reading, painting and everything natural; the other involves the London season, made up of masked balls, dances, theatre and music.