This early novel tells the story of Hester Southcote, a girl who has been raised by a bitter father to require "justice" of others, rather than sympathy or pity or even love. Her father is squire of Cottiswoode in Cambridgeshire; but their way of life is overturned when an unknown, but rightful, heir comes forward. Hester takes on her father's bitterness as they start a new life in Cambridge. Later she marries and believes she has found happiness; however her husband is withholding a secret which will affect her.
Many plot twists follow, including Hester's possession of a cursed diamond ring which casts a symbolic shadow over Hester's unhappiness.
Biographical and other notes
The description of the couple's wedding tour was inspired by Mrs Oliphant's own wedding tour in 1852. Although the plot is entirely fictional, the theme of an unhappy marriage reflected a difficult phase in Margaret Oliphant's own marriage, which however was followed by a happier period until her husband's early death in 1859.