There are two families named Penton, those at the great house and estate of Penton, and those at the much smaller, poorer country place of Penton Hook. Sir Walter Penton of Penton has lost both his sons, who would have been the heirs to the entailed estate, and has left to him only his daughter Alicia who cannot inherit the estate, though she will inherit his personal wealth. The heir to his estate is his distant cousin Edward Penton of Penton Hook.
At Penton, Alicia is married but has no children. Her husband Gerald Russell Penton loves her, but recognizes that he is the person of least importance alongside her and her father Sir Walter.
At Penton Hook, Edward is married with eight children, the eldest his son Walter (Wat) being next in line after himself to Penton. Wat is a difficult son, especially after he is "inveigled by the village siren". Edward's eldest daughters are Anne and Ally, who will each have a love story which may not run smooth.
One day the very poor Edward is met with a proposal which would provide him with instant wealth, but also with a very different future.
Biographical and other notes
The peninsula or "hook" on which the house of Penton Hook sits is based on the real Penton Hook on the river Thames, but with an important difference: that piece of land has been an artificial island since about 1815, when a lock was cut across the loop. Margaret Oliphant, who lived in Windsor, enjoyed boating on the Thames, and was doubtless familiar with the real story of Penton Hook and how it flooded when the Thames was high. There was no house on the hook at the time it became an island or thereafter.