This early novel is a coming of age story about a young man who leaves home at seventeen to live and work in Liverpool; and who gradually forgets his original values, as he becomes interested in the Chartist movement. (While the Chartist movement was originally about the vote for working men, many of its proponents were radicals who sought a new social order, and who were anti-religion.) Finally John reaches a crisis in his search for truth.
Meanwhile his dear friend Rachel, who is the daughter of a revered radical leader, has a more personal view of her tyrannical, drunken father; and she must sew for a living to keep her family afloat.
Biographical and other notes
Margaret Oliphant's family moved from Scotland to Liverpool around 1838, when she was about 10 years old. Her family lived for some years in the suburb of Everton, as does John Drayton later in the novel.
The (fictional) author of this novel is "Mr Mitchell". In the introduction he tells just enough about himself to enable the reader to recognize him as Willie Mitchell, the central character in another Oliphant novel Ailieford. Though John Drayton was published before Ailieford, it thus appears that Ailieford must have been written or at least worked on before John Drayton. (Mrs Oliphant often had several novels and stories ready for submission to publishers.)
This novel is sometimes mistakenly attributed to Margaret Oliphant's brother William Wilson.