Mr and Mrs Beresford are both still in their 30s, happily married, with one daughter Carità. They love to travel; and while they are away Carità lives for extended periods with her great aunt Charity and aunt Cherry at Sunninghill, with its beautiful views of the Castle of St George [Windsor Castle].
However by the time Carità is nearly 12, Mrs Beresford is bedridden in terrible pain, dying of cancer. She has begged her husband to put her out of her pain, but he cannot bring himself to do that. Finally with only Carità in the room, Mrs Beresford purposely takes an overdose of her medicine and dies. Carità, still a child, does not realise what she has witnessed; but the act has repercussions.
After this tragedy Carità lives with her aunts for the next five years, but at age 17 returns to her father's house in London. From here the novel expands its story lines: there is the amusing friendship between Mr Beresford and his charming neighbour next door - who is not quite a widow; there are five young people with varying issues, including Carità - who finds herself somewhat estranged from the young man she is falling in love with, because of a secret she must keep; and including Agnes who is looking for meaning in her life, and is drawn to an Anglican convent. There are also smaller stories including those of the maiden aunts and Dr Maxwell.
Biographical and other notes
Margaret Oliphant had earlier witnessed at least two protracted and painful terminal illnesses: of her mother from cancer, and of her husband from tuberculosis. Thus she understood Mrs Beresford's frantic plea to put her out of her pain. The early prominence of the "euthanasia" story line in this novel suggests that her original intent was to develop this theme more fully - perhaps even having the innocent Mr Beresford arrested for murder, as happens in a similar situation in the novel Innocent.
However The Times and other periodicals, reviewing the early serialised chapters of Carità, protested this theme strongly as immoral, irresponsible, and morbid. Whether or not it was in reaction to these reviews, Mrs Oliphant dropped this story line until the end of the novel, at which point it is wrapped up quickly. See the Margaret Oliphant Secondary Bibliography by John Stock Clarke (page 18, and later) for more information on the reviews of Carità.