The History of the Countess of Dellwyn
Summary by Birgit Schmidt-Rosemann


Sarah Fielding's The History of the Countess of Dellwyn (1759) is a very early example of a satirical novel. In her preface to the novel, Fielding discusses her use of satire as a didactic tool and explains that her goal is to display "the natural Tendency of Virtue towards the Attainment of Happiness; and, on the contrary, that Misery is the unavoidable Consequence of vicious Life." The novel follows the story of Charlotte Lucum, an innocent, simple young woman whose father awakes such a keen social ambition in his daughter that she agrees to marry the wealthy but old and decrepit Lord Dellwyn. Charlotte is so unhappy and bored in her marriage to Lord Dellwyn that she seeks out the distractions of a fashionable but superficial and often backstabbing social circle and soon becomes involved in an affair with the dashing Lord Clermont. When the affair is exposed, Lord Dellwyn divorces Charlotte, who escapes to Paris to avoid the shame and humiliation of such a public separation. In Paris, she falls in love with and plans to marry the kind and handsome M. D'Orville, but her only chance at true love is thwarted when word of the Countess' notorious past reaches Paris and the marriage plans are halted. The Countess returns to England, where she endeavors to keep herself busy with empty pursuits of pleasure to avoid reflecting on the fact that she is a friendless social outcast, followed by sneers of ridicule everywhere she goes.

In contrast to the sad and empty life of the Countess of Dellwyn, Fielding presents the life of the long-suffering but virtuous and ultimately happy Mrs. Bilson, who marries a philandering husband whose lavish spending lands him in debtor's prison. Mrs. Bilson’s unwavering goodness lands her the support of a wealthy woman, who makes the Bilsons the heirs to her fortune, allowing the Bilson family to remain intact and to spread their charitable goodness and wealth to others in need. While the Countess is governed by her vanity and her need to impress and upstage the other members of her fashionable society, Mrs. Bilson is governed by her humility, her capacity for forgiveness, and her need to help others who are suffering. Ultimately, both women reap the rewards of their actions.

The novel’s didactic message seems straightforward, but Sarah Fielding's treatment of the Countess of Dellwyn is ambivalent and complicates the putatively simple moral message of the novel. While Charlotte decides to marry Lord Dellwyn for his money and social status, and while she actively pursues the affair with Lord Clermont, Fielding makes it clear that Charlotte does not start life out as a vain and ambitious person. The novel plainly shows that her father has a large influence on his daughter and that he manipulates her into marrying Lord Dellwyn by raising her to believe that wealth and status are crucial to Charlotte's happiness. Nevertheless, the novel also presents Charlotte with several opportunities to reflect on and rise above her circumstances. Charlotte’s failure to realize and correct her mistakes can be read as indictment of her character. This ambiguity in Charlotte's character is also evident in the way that Fielding alternately presents Charlotte as a tragic or comic heroine: The reader is often conflicted as to whether to laugh at or feel sorry for Charlotte. This ambiguity in the representation of Charlotte illustrates the demands that Fielding makes of her readers, namely, that they read carefully and thoroughly and ultimately try to draw their own conclusions from what the novel presents them with.