Agnes Stanfield is the daughter of the village blacksmith, who is a prosperous and highly respected tradesman in the village of Windholm. Despite her station in life she is "a true gentlewoman, which is independent of bringing up". A baronet's son Roger Trevelyan falls in love with her, and they marry despite strong disapproval from his family. Much of the novel takes place in Italy where Agnes slowly develops as a person while dealing with a loving but difficult husband and a social world which looks down upon her.
A secondary character is Roger's sister Beatrice whom we follow briefly from her mid-thirties to her mid-forties, as she struggles to maintain her youth and wit in order to nab a husband. Though her character is not sympathetic, this is one of many examples in Oliphant (and other Victorian writers) of a woman for whom marriage is the only option to attain a life of her own.
This often sad novel has some dramatic events in the third volume - including a kidnapping.
Biographical and other notes
Volume I pages 294-5 describes Agnes in Florence at an art gallery, viewing the painting The Visitation by Abertinelli. The story of the painting is that Mary shares with Elizabeth her secret, that she is pregnant. Agnes also has her secret, and is very moved by the painting. Margaret Oliphant took this scene from her own life, when she was pregnant in Florence in 1859 and yearned for a mother or friend to be by her side. At that time she and her husband and children were in Italy because of her husband's illness from consumption; and in fact he died later that year in Rome, before the baby was born.
In the winter of 1863-4, while the widowed Mrs Oliphant was writing this novel, she travelled with two friends and all their children to Rome. Their delightful expedition ended in tragedy when Margaret's 10-year-old daughter Maggie died in Rome of gastric fever. This novel (third volume) mirrors Margaret Oliphant's raw, almost unbearable pain.
The novel's dedication is to Margaret Oliphant's friend Ellen Blackett, the wife of her publisher.
Fyi, there is a 1-volume version of Agnes published by Hurst and Blackett in 1868 which is revised and abridged, presumably by Mrs Oliphant. This version is available on google books. For information on other later editions see page 31 of the Margaret Oliphant Fiction Bibliography by John Stock Clarke.
British publishing information
First edition: Hurst and Blackett 1865 (1866 on title page)