Summary of The Inhuman Stepmother; or, The History of Miss Harriot Montague
2 Volumes (1770)
This novel claims to be a first edition, published anonymously in 1770, but it is, in fact, a plagiarised version of Penelope Aubin's novel, Charlotta du Pont (1723).
The novel is set during the reign of King George I, when a French couple named Le Montague come to settle in Plymouth, in order to escape religious prejudice against them in Catholic France. After eight years of marriage, they are blessed with a beautiful little daughter, Harriot; but Madame Le Montague dies of fever before their beloved child has reached the age of three. Harriot’s father is heartbroken, but he throws his energies into his daughter’s education, so that by the age of twelve, she has acquired many accomplishments and is much admired by all who know her.
Monsieur Le Montague meets up with an old friend on a London business trip, and they go to the theatre together. There they meet a charming young widow, Melinda, and her companion. Monsieur Le Montague rapidly decides that the widow will be his bride, despite warnings from his more cautious friend.
Actually, Melinda is not a widow at all; she has had an unfortunate life which has resulted in her becoming a sexual adventuress. She has a Westminster-based support network which includes young Lucinda, her companion at the theatre and also in her bed, when her captain–lover is unavailable. Melinda’s sexual favours have been profitably bestowed, and thus she and Lucinda live in fashionable comfort.
The innocent Le Montague’s offer of marriage does, however, offer an attractive alternative lifestyle to Melinda, with its promise of sustained financial security. The marriage soon takes place, and the new step-mother appears to be delighted by the lovely Harriot.
Melinda soon becomes bored with such sweet domesticity, and forms a liaison with a young sea captain, Du Pré, by whom she conceives a child. When little Diana is born, Monsieur Le Montagne suspects the child is not his, and enrages his wife by showing an obvious preference for Harriot. Melinda determines to be rid of Harriot, and a kidnapping of the thirteeen-year-old is secretly arranged.
The wicked plan is swiftly carried out, and a drugged Harriot is smuggled onto a ship- captain’s bed, and the ship sails. Melinda pretends to lament the drowning of her step-daughter, as a result of her slipping into the harbour during a walk. Harriot's father is so deeply distressed by this supposed loss that his life is in danger, and Melinda has high hopes of returning to London as a rich widow.
Poor Harriot regains consciousness to find herself the victim of her stepmother’s treachery, and thus a captive passenger on a voyage to Virginia. Her horrified grief is somewhat abated by the kindness of a fellow-passenger, Leander, who lovingly promises to protect her. Leander explains that he and his sister are orphans who have been betrayed by their treacherous guardians. The purpose of his voyage to Virginia is to seek the protection of their uncle who lives there. Despite her liking for Leander, and her appreciation of his proposal of marriage, Harriot feels overwhelmed by her terrible situation and falls into a life-threatening fever. Leander’s devoted nursing eventually restores Harriot to health and also to a capacity for loving. Leander begins to hope that they can be married as soon as the ship arrives at its destination.
However, before the ship reaches safe haven, it is attacked by pirates, and its crew are set adrift with a bare minimum of supplies to reach Virginia. Leander and Harriot are kept captive on the pirate ship, and have to pretend to be brother and sister so that the pirate captain does not kill Leander out of jealousy. Harriot hides a dagger in her clothing, in order to defend her honour from this amorous pirate, if necessary.
The pirate is suspicious of Harriot and Leander’s sibling act, and he soon begins to make passionate advances to the frightened young girl. He tells her his life story, and then offers her devoted support and even marriage, but to no avail. He then threatens to seduce Harriot, and has the furious Leander held in irons within the hold. The pirate tells Harriot that he will kill Leander if she does not submit to his desire, but she refuses to eat, and finally makes her rejection of him unequivocal by stabbing him in the stomach.
At this point, a Spanish Navy ship is sighted which turns out to be in pursuit of the pirates. The Spaniards shed a large quantity of pirate blood, rescue Harriot and Leander, and then resume their voyage to St Domingo. However, this is no real help to the young couple, because now the gallant sea-captain and a Spanish passenger, Don Carlos, both fall in love with Harriot, while poor Leander is, yet again, an obstacle to these would-be suitors. Things are looking rather tense until the ship encounters a small French merchant ship which is en route for Virginia. Luckily for Harriot’s two new admirers, an old flame of Leander’s, Camilla, is on board, and she delightedly reclaims her former sweetheart, greatly to Harriot’s distress.
Leander is tricked into boarding the French ship by the cunning Don Carlos, and Harriot’s Spanish vessel then sails off without him. Leander is heartbroken to be left with the wrong woman, but he feels he should be kind to his affectionate cousin until they reach Virginia, where he can hand her over to his uncle before setting off to search for Harriot in St Domingo. This plan does not work out quite as Leander wishes, however, since both young people develop life-threatening illnesses once they are in the care of his uncle, and it is many months before they both regain their health. During his convalescence, Leander establishes a close friendship with young Dumaresque, his cousin in Virginia.
Meanwhile, a storm drives Harriot’s ship onto one of the Summer Islands, so Harriot finds herself stranded with the crew and the love-smitten Don Carlos. On this island they rescue a starving castaway who mourns for his love, Clementina, missing somewhere in Canada. This forlorn gentleman tells his life story and turns out to be Harriot’s cousin! After some time, the group realises that a mixed-race family are living in a cave on the other side of the island.Once encountered, the black prince, Domingo, and his white common-law wife, Leonora, help the group to make their way safely to St Domingo, where Don Carlos’s father is the governor.
The governor arranges to legalise the island couple’s relationship, much to their joy and to the benefit of their child. It turns out to be a double wedding, because Harriot finally yields to Don Carlos’s demands, and both couples are married on board ship. Harriot is delighted to find that she has acquired a charming sister-in-law, Lavinia, but less pleased to find that she must pose as a Roman Catholic in order to be accepted at the governor’s castle. However, she adapts to her new religion and status quite easily, and is pleased that her cousin is financed to travel to Canada, in search of Clementina. (This search proves fruitless as Clementina has, in fact, been kidnapped by Algerian pirates.) All now seems tranquil for Harriot, but she has no idea that Leander has left Camilla safely under the marital protection of his uncle in Virginia, and is now secretly bound for St Domingo, with young Dumaresque, in order to seek out his true love.
Leander is bitterly hurt to discover that Harriot has married Don Carlos. She recognises him among a crowd outside the cathedral, and, already weakened by pregnancy, she faints at the shock of seeing her former love. The suspicious Don Carlos exiles her to Leonora’s country house, where Leander soon attempts to contact her. The resulting domestic crisis causes Harriot to miscarry, and Don Carlos has Leander and his friend thrown into prison. A kindly French officer finally lets the two young men escape, and they survive a hazardous sea voyage and capture by Indians in Mexico, before being taken under the protection of an old French hermit. The hermit is grieving for his dead wife, Flavia, but luckily Leander can assure the old man that Flavia and her son are actually living safely in a convent in France. Eventually, the hermit and the two young men return safely to Virginia, where they find Leander’s uncle living in harmony with his wife, Camilla.
Dumaresque now returns to St Domingo, where he finds out that Harriot and Lavinia are in mourning for Don Carlos. Both women are under the control of Don Carlos's father,the governor, who is very angry to discover that young Dumaresque is in love with his daughter, Lavinia, and that this love is returned. The governor has Dumaresque captured, but relents when Lavinia pines to the point of death for her lover. Dumaresque’s health has suffered badly during his months of captivity, but he is soon restored through his union with Lavinia.
Harriot and Leander are not faring so well, however. The governor will not hear of his widowed daughter-in-law marrying again. Leander manages to arrive back in St Domingo a month after Dumareque’s wedding, but he is promptly captured by ruffians and taken up the Oronoko river. After some terrible adventures, Leander finally manages to find a passage back to Virginia, where he learns that Harriot is about to arrive, accompanied by Lavinia and Dumaresque.
Leander is there to greet them when their ship finally docks, and it is with great joy that the couple are wed. They are joined in holy matrimony by a Benedictine monk, who will continue to serve Harriot by being her Catholic chaplain, and eventually, Leander's too, following his conversion to that faith.. The wedding party is made warmly welcome by Leander's uncle and Camilla, and there is much to celebrate.
Some connections between various separated couples are now re-established, and Harriot is amazed to realise that one of the found sweethearts turns out to be her half-sister, Diana. Harriot learns even more about the cruelty of Diana's mother and Captain Du Pré, and is relieved to know that Diana has at last found happiness with a sea captain, and will embark upon married life in Virginia, far away from the wicked Melinda. Harriot and the rest of the group set sail for France and arrive at St Malo ten weeks later.
In France, there is splendid news of Clementina being reunited with her husband, and also of Flavia, who has similarly found renewed happiness with her long-estranged husband. Once both Harriot and Lavinia have been safely delivered of their babies, Harriot and Leander decide to return to Bristol. There, they rescue Harriot's father from prison, where his wife's debts have landed him. All thus ends happily for the virtuous Harriot and her noble Leander, and the reader is left heartily relieved that their trials are at last over.