Lucy enters Lydia’s dressing room and reports on the outcome of her search for books for her mistress throughout Bath’s circulating libraries. Unfortunately, all the books that Lydia requested had already been taken from the libraries by other women of her acquaintance. However, Lucy did manage to get several other books, and she lists off several dramatically titled books like The Tears of Sensibility and The Sentimental Journey that she has brought for Lydia.
Lydia, like many young fashionable women, is a voracious reader of sentimental novels. These highly sought-after books emphasize the importance of emotions, while also describing dramatic adventures. For wealthy women with few responsibilities, reading such books was both fashionable and thrilling.
A moment later, Julia enters, much to the surprise of her cousin Lydia. They embrace and Julia explains that she came to Bath with Sir Anthony Absolute’s party and that Sir Anthony will arrive soon to present himself to Lydia’s aunt and guardian Mrs. Malaprop. Lydia hurries to fill her cousin in on developments in her love affair with Ensign Beverley since her last letter updating Julia. Mrs. Malaprop intercepted a love letter Lydia had sent, and now bars Lydia from communicating with Beverley. Meanwhile, Lydia informs Julia in a mocking tone, Mrs. Malaprop has been carrying on her own correspondence with an Irish baronet, using the pseudonym Delia or Celia, but this has not made her more sympathetic to Lydia’s love affair.
Lydia and Mrs. Malaprop’s lack of sympathy for one another’s love affairs is typical of the conflict between the generations when it comes to love and courtship. Although Mrs. Malaprop is corresponding with a man for romantic reasons, she bars Lydia from doing the same. Meanwhile, Lydia thinks it ridiculous for Mrs. Malaprop to be engaged in a romantic correspondence as she has been doing. For the young, love among the old is illegitimate, and vice versa. Neither recognizes their own hypocrisy.
Lydia’s worst piece of news is that she provoked a quarrel with Beverley before she was cut off from him by Mrs. Malaprop. Lydia started the quarrel because she realized that they had never fought before, so she sent herself an anonymous letter accusing him of courting another woman. She used the letter as a pretext to start a fight, but then couldn’t make up with him because of her aunt’s prohibition.
Lydia is hardly to be pitied for being deceived by Absolute to believe he is Beverley, since she too is capable of deception. Her deception is a silly one, however, undertaken without an end in mind that would serve her purposes. It seems likely that Lydia copied this trick from one of the romantic novels she reads.
Julia reassures Lydia, saying that if Beverley deserves her, he won’t give up so easily, but asks Lydia if she truly intends to marry someone so much poorer than she is. Lydia professes that she would rather marry a poor man who doesn’t care that she forfeits two-thirds of her fortune by marrying him. Julia says this desire is a caprice, and that Lydia could not possibly wish to give up her fortune.
Julia is a voice of reason who respects the established social order. In this case the order she respects is the one established by Lydia’s guardians to protect Lydia’s fortune. Julia thinks Lydia’s determination to defy the older generation by marrying a man who does not care about losing her fortune is foolish.
Lydia counters that Julia’s fiancé Faulkland is capricious too and always picks fights with her. Julia explains that she and Faulkland were engaged before her father’s death. She says that Faulkland sincerely loves her and misbehaves because he is wracked by anxiety over whether or not she loves him. Lydia asks Julia if she would still marry Faulkland if he hadn’t saved her from drowning, and Julia says she loved him even before he saved her.
Again, Julia’s respect for the established order leads her to place a great importance on her deceased father’s wish that she marry Faulkland. Although she says she loves Faulkland, she also refers to an obligation to him, an explanation which Lydia rejects. Julia’s patience with Faulkland makes her the play’s prime example of feminine virtue.
Lucy now enters to tell Lydia that Sir Anthony has arrived. Julia departs, and Lydia and her maid hurry to hide Lydia’s books. Sir Anthony and Mrs. Malaprop enter and immediately begin lecturing Lydia on her determination to marry Beverley when her elders command that she forget him. Sir Anthony blames Lydia’s refusal to be told whom to marry on her reading, while Mrs. Malaprop refers to her own experience with her deceased husband and advises Lydia that it doesn’t matter if you hate or like your fiancé, since both sentiments will wear off over the course of a marriage. Mrs. Malaprop says that every argument Lydia makes “does not become a young woman” and eventually sends her from the room.
Sir Anthony believes that the generational conflict he witnesses in Lydia and Mrs. Malaprop’s relationship is the result of Lydia’s reading books which have made her forget her duty as a young woman to obey her elders. Mrs. Malaprop makes the unconvincing argument that it does not matter whether you love or hate your future husband. Her repeated complaint that Lydia is not acting as a young lady ought to quickly reaches a point of ridiculousness, even telling Lydia that thought itself is unbecoming behavior.
Left alone, Sir Anthony and Mrs. Malaprop debate the value and utility of education for women, with Sir Anthony hinting that books will make girls act promiscuously. He asks Mrs. Malaprop what kind of an education she thinks is proper to give a woman. Mrs. Malaprop breaks down which subjects she thinks it benefits women to study, but she mixes up so many words in her speech that she makes no sense. For instance, saying that a girl should be “instructed in geometry, that she might know something of the contagious countries.” Sir Anthony says they will discuss it no further, as many of Mrs. Malaprop’s arguments support his position.
Many in the late 18th century worried that literature would lead women to explore sex and get pregnant out of wedlock and be ostracized. Yet Sir Anthony’s failure to distinguish between literacy and reading books about sex is a parody of the extremes to which this position could be taken. On the other hand, literacy has done Mrs. Malaprop little good, as she pretentiously uses vocabulary that she believes will make her sound sophisticated, but actually garbles her speech. Sir Anthony hints that he sees Mrs. Malaprop’s gibberish as a further proof that women need not learn to read.
The conversation then turns to Lydia: Sir Anthony Absolute proposes that she should marry his son, and Mrs. Malaprop agrees, expressing the hope that Lydia will prefer Absolute to Acres, the first match she had chosen for her niece. Mrs. Malaprop asks Sir Anthony if he thinks Absolute will be receptive to the idea of marrying Lydia, and Sir Anthony promises to force his son to accept the match. He urges Mrs. Malaprop to do the same with Lydia, suggesting that she starve Lydia if she will not comply, then takes his leave.
The older generation is trying to arrange a marriage for the younger, but hardly considers whether the young people will like one another, only how it can assert its control. Once again, Sir Anthony’s position is so extreme as to become a parody, this time of parents who seek to totally control their children’s futures.
Left alone, Mrs. Malaprop reflects that she would be glad to no longer be required to serve as her niece’s guardian, because Lydia has discovered that she is corresponding with Sir Lucius. She wonders if Lucy has betrayed her, but reflects that “had she been one of your artificial ones, I should never have trusted her.” She calls Lucy in and asks whether Lucy betrayed the fact of Mrs. Malaprop’s correspondence to Lydia. Lucy plays dumb. Mrs. Malaprop believes her, and gives Lucy another letter to deliver to Sir Lucius, warning the maid that she must keep her secret.
Mrs. Malaprop has a misplaced faith in her own ability to see through a deception. She asks Lucy straightforwardly whether Lucy is deceiving her, and takes Lucy’s pretended innocence at face value. Mrs. Malaprop’s inability to understand that those around her are laughing at her and taking advantage of her receives no sympathy in the play, but only comes in for mockery.
After Mrs. Malaprop has left, Lucy goes over all the tips and presents she has been given while serving as a messenger for Acres, Ensign Beverley, Lydia, Mrs. Malaprop, and Sir Lucius O’Trigger. She has acted simple and uncalculating, but really she is gaming them all. She has gotten tips from Acres without delivering his messages to Lydia, revealed Lydia and Beverley’s affair to Mrs. Malaprop, and even tricked Sir Lucius into believing that he was corresponding with Lydia, instead of Mrs. Malaprop, once she realized Lucius would not court the old and unattractive Mrs. Malaprop just for her money.
Lucy, a practiced deceiver, tells her superiors what they want to hear, and presents herself as their ally, all the while betraying them to one another. Lucy is canny enough to recognize exactly which messages to deliver and which to hold back, and has even orchestrated the courtship between Mrs. Malaprop and Sir Lucius under false pretenses because she sees that she can profit from it.