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Elizabeth and Jane Purbeck

The Corvey Project at
Sheffield Hallam University


Synopsis of Matilda and Elizabeth by Elizabeth & Jane Purbeck

Matilda Huntley, the widow of Colonel Edward Huntley, has devoted her life to the care of her younger sister, Elizabeth Arundel, since the death of their mother. At the opening of the novel, the sisters are parted as Elizabeth is introduced into society and Matilda remains behind with her young daughter, Celia. Since Huntley’s death she has become melancholy and withdrawn, rejecting the attentions of other men who she believes could not compare with her late husband, including her most ardent admirer Count Villeroy. She laments ‘though I can never again be happy, I am always serene and often cheerful’. She is eager for Elizabeth to find a suitable husband, but is concerned when she appears to be losing her heart to Lord Molesworth who, although already married, has attracted a great deal of sympathy due to the unhappy state of his relationship. Lady Molesworth, disliked for her excessive vanity, is being pursued by her former lover Sir James Harpur, who schemes to win her back and take revenge on her husband. Elizabeth assures Matilda that her feelings toward Lord Molesworth are only of friendship, and Volume One concludes with a favourable account of the sisters by their friend, Mary Anne Stanley.

As Volume Two progresses it becomes clear that Elizabeth’s feelings for Lord Molesworth are deepening, and he is further raised in her esteem following his rescue of Emily Fitzroy, the sister of Elizabeth’s friend Edward, who ran away to avoid a forced marriage to the arrogant, self-seeking Brandon. Matilda worries that her sister’s sensibility may lead her to become attached to Lord Molesworth, particularly since his wife has been killed in a shipwreck. She herself has become increasingly depressed and her concerned friend Mary Anne arranges a day trip to Weston in an attempt to restore her spirits. Here Matilda meets Milford, an old soldier who served with Colonel Huntley in the war, and together they reminisce about his favourable attributes. Matilda learns that her husband’s face was so disfigured when he died that he could be identified only by a small picture of her which he wore around his neck. Elizabeth is concerned that the incident, and her recent re-acquaintance with Sir William Huntley, has further depressed her sister, and relates to her the story of Emily’s life in the hope that it will amuse and enliven her mind.

Elizabeth is attracting many friends and admirers, and Matilda speaks of her pride in her sister's development. Despite the attentions of Mr Howard and Mr Fortesque, Elizabeth’s heart lies with Lord Molesworth, and he admits his love for her to his friend, Major Clifton. Elizabeth joyfully tells Matilda of her certainty that they will be married within a month. However, her happiness is short-lived as Lord Molesworth's behaviour towards her suddenly changes, and she is distraught when informed that he has already married Charlotte Boothby. The marriage was rash and the result of Charlotte’s bribery of Lord Molesworth’s father, Lord Montague, who was anxious to secure her ample fortune for his family. Doubts surrounding the circumstances of Lord Molesworth's birth have since arisen, and although he repents his behaviour he is determined to secure his birthright before rectifying his actions. Matilda urges Elizabeth not to blame him, and is concerned for her sisters health, despite her own problems. She is becoming increasingly upset and annoyed by Lady Mildmay’s constant insistence that she marry Count Villeroy, who has confessed he would give up his life for her hand.

Volume Four begins with the restoration of Matilda’s happiness and joy as she learns that Colonel Huntley is alive, and has been rescued from a Spanish prison by Count Villeroy. After giving his necklace to his Captain for safe-keeping, he was falsely identified, and had since been the captive of a tribe of Indians, and a Countess who became besotted by him. Although happy for her sister, Elizabeth’s spirits are low and her friends become increasingly concerned for her health. However, her wish that ‘all I have so long lamented may be restored to me’ is granted when the dispute over Lord Moleworth’s birth is revealed to be the result of a conspiracy by the evil Squire Northington to swap the infant at birth for his own son, in order that he may lay claim to the title. The marriage of Elizabeth to Lord Molesworth is arranged and it is decided that they will live nearby Matilda and Colonel Huntley, to ‘spare the amiable sisters the pain they would feel from being settled at a distance from each other’. The novel concludes with Huntley’s reflections on ‘the goodness of an all-gracious and over-ruling Providence’ and his conviction that ‘whether the road of life has been strewed with flowers or covered with thorns will be immaterial, provided we have not loitered too long in gathering the former, nor suffered ourselves to be impeded by the latter’.

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