A satire of the sentimentalist novels so in vogue in the first half of the 18th century, similar in style to Fielding’s earlier Joseph Andrews. It’s perhaps better written than that book (and less overtly comic), but storywise, it’s not as entertaining in my opinion.
Amelia Harris is the child of a wealthy woman who has high hopes of her making an advantageous marriage, but her daughter has fallen in love with a poor, young army man named William Booth. With the help of the local parson, Dr. Harrison, she and Will elope. Her mother dies not long afterward, leaving her entire fortune to Amelia’s sister. The Booths are left to shift for themselves in London, which is a daily struggle. Will finds himself several times in debtors’ prison, Amelia is assaulted on all sides by pimps and lechers, and the line between friend and enemy grows ever blurrier. Eventually, it’s discovered that Mother’s will was a forgery — she had actually left almost the whole of her estate to Amelia, but her sister conspired with an underhanded lawyer to steal it. Restored to fortune, Will and Amelia leave the miserable city to live happily ever after in the countryside.
Most of the book’s humor derives from how very at odds the plot treats its characters (that is, as if they were the familiar stock characters found in all sentimentalist novels) to how they are actually characterized. Will is not a good husband. He’s idle, given to drink, a gambling addict, adulterous, and violently jealous; possessing of just enough intelligence to reason away his many vices. Amelia is not the perfect partner. She’s an overly trusting pushover who’s ignorant of both formal education and common sense, whose virtue may be more correctly termed prudishness, and whose secretive nature, while protecting Booth from some dangers, exposes him to many others. Dr. Harrison is not a wise savior. He’s an opinionated pedant at best and a useful fool more frequently, as quick to condemn as to forgive, easily flattered by sycophants and more easily offended by true friends. The villains, likewise, are complicated and inconstant, many (such as the bailiff at the debtors’ prison) possessing a moral code that, while idiosyncratic, they strictly adhere to and judge themselves by.
In 15th century Italy, Bellarion, an orphan, is raised isolated from the world in a monastery. Having exhausted all the learning available to him, he obtains leave to travel to a distant monastery to study Greek. Along the way, he is robbed of his papers and taken for a thief himself. In his escape, he stumbles into the palace garden and meets Princess Valeria, who harbors him from his pursuers.
From there, the plot gets complicated. Indebted to the princess, he assumes the role of knight-errant in fulfilling her aim of deposing the current regent (Marquis Theodore) and replacing him with her brother, the rightful prince. This he does in a roundabout way over the course of several years of scheming, backstabbing, political intrigue, and graphic violence. Along the way, Bellarion is adopted by Facino Cane, the renowned condottiero, and advances himself through his military prowess until, by the end, he is himself a prince.
For reasons too detailed to do justice in a few lines, Valeria comes to believe that Bellarion is a tool of the regent and so does all she can to work against him — at one point, being complicit in his almost-execution. However, Bellarion never loses sight of his mission and at last sees it through. After deposing the regent, he intends to abandon his titles and return to the monastery. Valeria, at last realizing Bellarion’s faithfulness, asks him to marry her.
Jimmy is madly in love with Cynthia, an actress who’s more interested in the diamonds than the man who gives them. Cynthia throws him over for someone wealthier than himself. Hoping to make her jealous, Jimmy courts his old childhood friend, Christine. When Cynthia announces her engagement, Jimmy rashly proposes to Christine as well. After their marriage, Christine learns why Jimmy proposed to her and leaves him.
Spendthrift Jimmy is financially dependent on his stingy older brother Horatio, and there is no love lost between them. Back at home, Christine meets one of Horatio’s friends and the two grow closer, perhaps, than propriety might allow. Jimmy is jealous, but more, he realizes that he only ever lusted after Cynthia and that he actually does love Christine. The other man makes a pass at Christine, which is enough to open her eyes to the situation and soften her heart to Jimmy. She goes back to him.