Mrs Eastwood is a widow with four children, all still at home: Frederick age 26, Nelly age 20, Dick age 18, and Plantagenet ("Jenny") age 16. The household is light-hearted, except for the serious Frederick who appears so proper and yet is actually the black sheep.
Now Mrs Eastwood is taking in a distant relative, Innocent, who was raised in Italy. Innocent is a "girl of dormant intelligence" - she speaks normally, but is bewildered by the world about her - not able to understand the social cues which people take for granted.
This novel follows several characters' stories - Nelly, whose engagement is not as delightful as anticipated; Frederick, who indulges in vicious behaviour while abroad, and later becomes obsessed with a coarse young woman; and Innocent, whose beauty has charmed several people (seemingly oblivious to her mental limitations), including a worldly older man who wants to marry her. Innocent's life is further complicated after she is left alone with someone who dies from an overdose - leading to suspicions of foul play.
More events will take place before the end of the novel, involving Innocent and affecting the entire family. Mrs Eastwood is always at the heart of the novel, doing the best she can for those she loves.
Biographical and other notes
Mrs Eastwood, a widow, bears some resemblance to Margaret Oliphant herself - in her personality and in the hospitable ambience which she creates in her home. The story is of course fictional, but the boys in the story may bear some resemblance to the boys in Mrs Oliphant's household: Like the fictional Dick, her nephew Frank would have been about age 18, perhaps being coached before admission to engineering college; and her sons Cyril (about 16) and Cecco (about 13) were at Eton and may have contributed to the portrait of the fictional Eton son "Jenny". Also like the novel, there was always at least one Skye terrier in Mrs Oliphant's household (as well as a dachshund and a collie!)
Fyi, the description of a chapel in the Brompton Road is probably based on the Wesleyan Sloane Place Chapel, later torn down (and not to be confused with the Wesleyan Chapel in Sloane Square).
One of the story lines in this novel is repeated in two other Oliphant stories. See the Related Story Line entry below.
British publishing information
Periodical: The Graphic 4 Jan - 28 Jun 1873
First edition: Sampson Low, Marston, Low & Searle 1873