Mr Renton has a large estate in Berkshire, and has three sons between 20 and 25 years old. It has always been understood that upon his death the estate would go to Ben the eldest, and that Laurie and Frank would be well provided for. However one day on a whim he changes his will so that the boys will be limited to £200 per year for a period of seven years. He dies soon thereafter, regretting this foolish step.
This novel depicts the young men's experiences over the seven years, including their struggles and their love stories. Several women have prominent parts in the story, especially the painter Mrs Severn whose close friendship with amateur artist Laurie seems on the verge of becoming something deeper.
Biographical and other notes
Mrs Oliphant's husband Frank had been an artist (a painter, and a designer of stained glass); and she had greatly enjoyed knowing his artist friends and observing their ways of life. From that background she created the fictional community of artists in this novel.
To some extent Margaret Oliphant based the character of Mrs Severn on herself - a talented widowed artist, working for her children; creating a warm atmosphere around her; even having her own "bright lambent-glowing eyes".
The fictional Mrs Severn had been nicknamed "the padrona" by her husband - one meaning in Italian being "the missus", the one in charge. However the phrase "padrona mia" which Mrs Severn's friends affectionately call her, seems more reverential - perhaps closer in meaning to "my lady", as it is sometimes used in poetry. In real life Margaret Oliphant's close friend Jane Tulloch was known to everybody as "the padrona" and "padrona mia". Several other friends in their circle had Italian nicknames - Isabella Blackwood was "donna mia"; Geddie Macpherson was, at least to Margaret, "sorella mia"; and Margaret was "madonna mia". (See also the biographical note for Madonna Mary.)
Fyi, the fictional village of "Cooksley" is based on the village of Cookham; "Royalborough" is based on the town of Windsor (where Mrs Oliphant lived); "Slowley Junction" is based on Slough Junction.
British publishing information
Periodical: St Paul's Magazine Jun 1869 - Sep 1870