In this early Scottish novel, an extended family live together in a few small rooms - sisters Martha, Rose, and Violet Muir; and brother Harry, with his wife Agnes and baby. They struggle to get by on tiny incomes. The single ladies work long hours at piece-meal sewing, to contribute their share. The sometimes charming Harry works in an office, but is jeopardizing his job, and dragging down his family, by his drinking. Will an unexpected inheritance put things right, or will Harry drag them down once again?
Meanwhile Rose has quietly fallen in love, but is perhaps too shy to grasp her happiness. And Martha, who has become bitter, still seeks for a fulfilling use for her strength and intelligence.
Biographical and other notes
Margaret Oliphant's family moved to Glasgow when she was age 6, and remained there until she was 10, when they moved to Liverpool. The description of the Muirs' Glasgow housing may have been similar to that of Margaret's family.
Margaret's brother Willie was an alcoholic. When he was a young man, she was still a child like Violet in the novel. One has to wonder whether the scene in which Harry strikes someone was based on an actual event. Violet has many similarities to the young Margaret, including her love of old Scottish tales and legends; and how at age 10, "...what a host of books, of all kinds and classes, the little Violet had devoured already." She dreams of becoming a writer.