This novel is the story of three brothers, Roger, Edmund, and Stephen, and the women in their lives. Their father, the autocratic Mr Mitford of Melcombe, is a rich man with an unentailed estate. He expects his sons to do what he tells them, even when it comes to marriage. And he doesn't hesitate to change his will when not pleased.
Roger, the eldest, is in love with the keeper's daughter, Lily Ford. Lily is flattered, and dreams of being a lady, but it is only later in the novel that we learn whether she returns Roger's love. Edmund, who has his own small fortune from his mother, is in love with the Rector's daughter Pax, a slightly older woman. And he admires, but is not yet in love with, the heiress Elizabeth Travers.
Stephen does not actually love anyone, but chases any woman he can make headway with. This novel includes a hair-raising scene after Stephen convinces a girl that he will marry her once they travel up to London. And the aftermath of this event will be devastating.
By the end of this interesting, complex novel, very little will be the same as in the beginning.
Biographical and other notes
This novel was serialised in the Atlantic Monthly in 1887-8. Margaret Oliphant authorised the editor, TB Aldrich, to make small changes for the American market, and seems also to have authorised him to add his name as co-author for copyright reasons, in both the magazine and in the American book edition - perhaps she did not read the contract carefully enough. Be that as it may, she must have been startled to see the resulting American edition (Houghton Mifflin, 1888), which not only indicates him as co-author, but includes a large portrait of himself on the frontispiece - and does not include a portrait of herself!
It appears Aldrich did not return her original manuscript, because while preparing the proofs of the novel for the British edition (MacMillan and Co, 1888), Mrs Oliphant wrote: "He has made very small alterations all through", which she removed, restoring the novel back to her original words.* MacMillan put Mrs Oliphant's name alone on the title page, but did include Aldrich's name with hers on another page, presumably for some contractual reason.
* Per The Equivocal Virtue - Mrs Oliphant and the Victorian Literary Market Place, a biography of Margaret Oliphant by Vineta and Robert Colby, Archon Books, 1966, pages 259-260.
British publishing information
Periodical: Atlantic Monthly (Boston) Jan 1887 - Feb 1888