This early novel opens in Liverpool, after the death of Mr Melville. Mrs Melville, and adult children Isabella and Hugh, find their lives completely changed by this sad loss. Hugh must leave medical school in Edinburgh, and seek a low-paying clerkship in Liverpool; Mrs Melville and Isabella must work long hours at sewing piece-work, to meet even their basic expenses.
In the midst of their struggles comes the epidemic of "Irish Fever", which causes Hugh, with his medical training still incomplete, to face some difficult choices. This novel tells the stories of the Melvilles and their friends, including that of their cousin Esther who comes to live with them after running away from home.
Biographical and other notes
Like the family in this novel, Margaret Oliphant and her family lived in Everton, a suburb of Liverpool. Margaret was age 19 when the 1847 epidemic of Irish Fever (typhus) hit Liverpool. During that period, approximately 30,000 people in Britain died of typhus; another 13,000 died of a virulent influenza.
This novel is sometimes mistakenly attributed to Mrs Oliphant's brother William Wilson.
Fyi, an earlier novel Christian Melville (written 1844-5) is not about the same family.