A puzzled and somewhat critical American senator visits England and chronicles the romantic problems of two young men and women of his acquaintance in a letter home to Boston. This is a feminist, funny, smart Victorian satire. It is narrated by US Senator Gotobed, who is a guest of a squire named John, a character in the love story in this novel. The story centers on two young ladies of good birth in the English countryside. Mary is a good girl, well-to-do and well-bred but not too upper-class (her father was a lawyer, not a duke), and Mary likes to abide by the rules of what constitutes a good girl's conduct. Arabella is beautiful, vivacious, fashionable and ambitious, raised practically independent since her parents live apart. But despite Arabella's extremely noble blood, she and her mother have had little to no money of their own since her parents' separation, and Arabella is determined to marry well. Not having money is her biggest fear and problem in life.
Mary is soon courted by a handsome, kind, wonderful young farmer named Lawrence, much to the delight of Mary's family. Mary is fond of Lawrence and respects him, but she has ambitions to marry within her social class or above it. Her ideal match, in her mind, is a young landowner named Reginald (John's cousin), who she met at a ball given by his cousin to host the visiting army officers. Reginald is attracted to Mary as well, but believes that Lawrence has claimed her. And as a lady, Mary cannot take the initiative and pursue Reginald herself. And so she watches forlornly as Reginald pays court to other young ladies, nobly (in his mind) ignoring Mary.
Arabella decides to take her fate into her own hands. She manages to charm Reginald's cousin John, the squire of Bragton, into proposing to her, but her ambition is unsatisfied by this match.John is well to do and has a possible future as a diplomat, but he is not rich enough. She dangles the prospect of her acceptance before John to keep him interested and "off the market", while covertly hunting for richer prey. Arabella decides that as the descendant of a ducal family and a banking dynasty, she cannot settle for less than the Earl, Lord Rufford, whose stately home would be the perfect nest for her and whose thousands of pounds would keep both Arabella and her mother in luxury. She deliberately rides out the Rufford Park, her dress and hair artfully tousled, and attempts to waylay Lord Rufford. She takes care not to pay him attention at a social event where John is present, but when alone, she flirts and charms him. Lord Rufford, a young man with more titles and illusions than real money, has no intention of marrying Arabella, because he needs a rich heiress to restore his family fortunes, a secret nobody knows. And so Arabella's flirtations with Rufford go nowhere. When she has a last chance to try to seduce Rufford at a masked ball, she receives words from her anxious mother than John has caught a terrible fever and is just days from death. Filled with affection and protective instinct, Arabella returns to John's home in Bragton and sits with him as he fades, accepting his proposal just to please him.
Meanwhile, Mary turns down Lawrence, seeing this as the only possible way to signal her availability to Reginald. However, John's death makes Mary worry that Reginald is now too wealthy and influential to court her - and yet only days after Reginald moves into John's old home, he rides over to Mary's estate and asks to speak with her privately in the drawing room. There Reginald haltingly confesses his love for Mary and that she is the only one he has ever wanted to marry. Delighted, Mary accepts.
A few months later, in London, Arabella meets John's other cousin, a fellow Foreign office diplomat named Mounser. Mounser is attractive, intelligent, and ambitious, but his income is at the level of John's or slightly lower, and he will never be a millionaire with a career as a diplomat. It is not the fabulous life of riches and luxury that Arabella dreamed of, but when Mounser begins to court Arabella through the garden shows and regattas of the London season, she realizes that her mother always was the one pushing her to marry for money instead of love, and she finds that she likes Mounser more than she ever liked John or Lord Rufford. She defies her mother's objections and gets married to Mounser. Senator Gotobed, who has admired Mary and scorned Arabella for much of the book, admits in the end that Mounser got a very smart wife out of the deal.
Best part of story, including ending:
This was one of the more honest portrayals of Victorian life, less moralizing, more reality, and I like that.
Best scene in story:
When Mary and Reginald finally decide to get married in her drawing room. It is a sweet, sincere and touching scene.
Opinion about the main character:
I love that Mary and Arabella - both urged to marry different men (Lawrence, Rufford) - eventually found the will to stand up and make their own choices. They are different people but both are very compelling and interesting characters and portray different kinds of Victorian women.