Theo Warrender was a brilliant young man of promise when he went up to Oxford, but through inexperience and arrogance he has lost his way. Now age 21, near the end of his studies, he has been called home to the Warren by his father's illness and death.
Theo's mother Mrs Warrender has been an excellent wife and mother, but found her home life very dull. Now the the thought of change is pleasant, as she looks forward to moving with her daughters to the jointure house in Highcombe, a town with more interest and variety than their small village.
After a short time a dreadful accident produces another widow - beautiful Lady Markland, age 25. Theo had known her distantly before, but now becomes obsessed with her and uses any excuse he can to be near her - even becoming her 8-year-old child Geoff's tutor. Meanwhile Lady Markland is becoming a woman of business - making many retrenchments to save the overburdened estate for her son. She is content with her life; yet after a year has passed, there is a real danger that she might succumb to Theo's passion.
This novel tells several stories: of the two widows, whose lives seem to expand as they experience independence for the first time; of the autocratic Theo, whose personality becomes ever darker as the novel proceeds; of little Geoff, who is at the mercy of the emotional adults in his world; and of Mrs Warrender's daughter Chatty, whose initially simple romance with Dick Cavendish becomes complicated.
Biographical and other notes
The novel is of course fictional, but the opening few pages are reminiscent of how Mrs Oliphant's son Cyril seems to have lost his own way at Oxford a few years earlier - in his case compounded by alcoholism. (He attended Balliol College, Oxford from 1875-79 and completed his degree in 1883.)
This novel has a sequel of sorts - see "2 Related Story Lines" below.
British publishing information
Periodical: Atlantic Monthly (Boston) Jan 1885 - Feb 1886