Helen is married to painter Robert Drummond. Over time she has become somewhat disillusioned, realising that Robert will never be a great painter; but their marriage is otherwise very happy. Before her marriage Helen had turned down the marriage proposal of her rich cousin Mr Burton; and now he comes forward to "help" Robert with his investments. Later, after a series of dramatic events, Helen finds herself a widow, impoverished, and living literally at the gates of her cousin Mr Burton.
While Helen is going through her experiences the next generation is growing up; and her daughter Norah becomes close to Mr Burton's son Ned - much against Mr Burton's wishes. More dramatic events will take place before the story's end. This novel has many fine character studies, including that of Stephen Haldane, an active intelligent man in the prime of life, who becomes paralysed after an illness.
Biographical and other notes
Like her character Helen, Margaret Oliphant was married to an artist. She may have drawn on her own experiences when describing Helen's early belief in her husband's greatness - which is followed by a letdown when she realises that he lacks the essential spark of genius. The character Helen is mortified by her discovery and never quite gets over the disillusion. If Mrs Oliphant did have a similar experience, it is unlikely she took it so permanently to heart. Helen is described as quite conventional, disliking her husband's free and easy friends. In contrast we know from Margaret Oliphant's Autobiography that during her marriage she enjoyed the sociable, creative atmosphere of the painter's world. In 1870 she wrote an affectionate tribute to that world in another interesting novel The Three Brothers.
This novel's title stems from the Biblical parable of Dives and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31).