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Plot Synopsis

Nicola Field: Plot Synopsis of Eglantine; or the Family of Fortescue (1816) by Charlotte Nooth

Set in the summer of 1813, Eglantine centres on the attachment of the novel's young heroine, Eglantine Fortescue, with the dashing young captain Augustus Fitzroy. The pair meet during Eglantine's stay with her aunt. Lady Winterton is the sister of Eglantine's mother, Selina Fortescue. It is soon revealed that Mrs Fortescue lives alone in Devonshire, separated from her husband, Captain Fortescue, who ran off to America some fourteen years earlier and hasn't been heard of since.

It is the story of the marriage of Eglantine's parents that proves the most interesting narrative of the novel. This story is told by Mrs Fortescue through a series of letters to her daughter (meant as a warning to her). Mrs Fortescue reveals that as a young girl she eloped with Captain Fortescue, against the strong wishes of her father. Subsequently, after the marriage, her family cut all ties with the newlyweds. Not long into the marriage, Mrs Fortescue learns that her husband has numerous debts across town and she is frequently forced to rely on the generosity of old friends such as Mr Elrington (Landen), to keep the creditors at bay. Eventually the Captain is forced to sell his commission in the army to clear his debts and the couple moves to London. Here their finances are little improved, with the Captain frequently losing money in the gambling houses. Before long Mrs Fortescue finds herself imprisoned with her husband in the King's Bench, as a consequence of one of his debts. Once again it is Mr Elrington who comes to their rescue, clearing the debt and setting them up in a home in Edgware. Things still don't run smoothly, however, and Mrs Fortescue arrives home one night to discover that her husband has run off with one of their friends, Mrs Watson.

Devastated by the news, Mrs Fortescue is taken in by her friend Lady Eleanor and eventually reunited with her father. Now with child, Mrs Fortescue returns to the family home and hears nothing from the Captain for three years. When he does eventually return, full of remorse, his wife decides to go back to him. For fourteen months she and Eglantine live quite happily with the Captain, but this happiness is short-lived. Soon he is back at the billiard tables and getting into debt again. Then, one day, Mrs Fortescue returns home to find another letter, this time telling her that her husband has fled to America to start a new life and will not return until he has made his fortune. Heart-broken, Mrs Fortescue is resettled by her friends in Devonshire, where she still retains the faint hope that one day she and her husband will be reunited.

Due to the scandal surrounding Mrs Fortescue's marriage with Captain Fortescue, Captain Fitzroy is prevented from declaring his love for Eglantine and proposing marriage. Fitzroy has always promised his parents that he will marry into a family of good name and considerable fortune. The family of Eglantine is neither of these and for a while it seems unlikely that she will ever be united with Fitzroy. Events change, however, when Mr Elrington declares his intention to travel to America to discover once and for all what has happened to Captain Fortescue. While Elrington is away, Captain Fitzroy returns home to convince his parents of his love for Eglantine. Unhappy with his choice, they insist he make no declaration of love until the outcome of Elrington's visit is known. In the meantime, Eglantine is visited by Matilda de Brooke, the governess of a local family and new friend of the heroine. Matilda reveals that her fiancé, also coincidentally named Fortescue, is set to return soon from his travels abroad. She shows Eglantine a portrait of her intended, who is struck by the similarity of this man with her father. Knowing her father to have no brothers, however, she's sure there can be no connection between the two men.

Having lived with her aunt for four months Eglantine finally returns home to her mother. It is here that they receive news from Mr Elrington, who writes saying he has tracked Captain Fortescue down to New York, where he is said to be a successful businessman. Mr Elrington's meeting with Fortescue is a strange one. The Captain himself looks no older than when Elrington last saw him and yet he seems to have no recollection of Elrington. He also asks little of his wife and child. Mr Elrington writes that he and the Captain are to return to England soon.

During the period in which they await the two men's return, Miss de Brooke comes to stay in Devonshire. During a visit to see this young girl, Mrs Fortescue recognises a ring and a watch worn by Matilda as items once belonging to her. Suddenly both women are convinced that they are attached to the same man. A few days later it is discovered that old Mr Fortescue, the Captain's father, is dying in a nearby inn and wishes to ask forgiveness from Mrs Fortescue. She and Eglantine go to visit him, where he tells them of the poor upbringing received by the Captain, his illegitimate son. He also reveals that there's a second, legitimate son who also goes by the same name as his elder brother and that these two sons have hated each other from an early age. Upon his death Mr Fortescue leaves his entire estate to the Captain, believing that, as he is the eldest, although illegitimate, he is the rightful heir.

When Mr Elrington eventually returns with Fortescue from America it is quickly revealed that this man is not the Captain, but his younger brother. Having taken a serious fall on the boat and now on his deathbed, Edward Fortescue confesses that he has been impersonating his brother for the five years since his death. Although before he died the Captain had asked his brother to take care of his wife and child Edward, overcome by greed, had used the Captain's money to start his own business instead. Despite his criminal deceptions, Matilda refuses to desert her fiancé and nurses him through his final few days of life.

With the death of her father confirmed and her mother in possession of a considerable sized estate, Eglantine is finally in a suitable position to marry Fitzroy. Once the couple is wed, they move to Eglantine's new estate. Her mother, in the meantime, also becomes a bride, marrying Mr Elrington. Fitzroy's parents steadily relax their opinion concerning Eglantine's 'breeding' when they look at how good and happy Fitzroy's offspring are, and the judicious manner in which Eglantine brings them up.