When John thinks back to his childhood he has confusing memories of a jolly, tipsy father and a cold mother. He is fond of older sister Susie, but she and their mother keep secrets from him: "Not in front of the boy." At age 7 he had gone to live with his grandparents in a country village, where he had a happy boyhood. It is after his grandparents' death that his life unravels - his mother takes responsibility for him, but does not trust him - she thinks he is like his father. (We do not learn until later in the novel what exactly were the sins of John's father.)
In this novel the tables are turned on the concept of male privilege - the disability in John's family is to be male; and John carries the burden of being "like" his father. We follow John's lonely struggle as he works to become a civil engineer, and dreams of his childhood friend Elly whose place in the social order is above his own.
Biographical and other notes
Margaret Oliphant was familiar with the profession of civil engineering. Her second cousin TA Walker, based in London, was one of the prominent railway engineers of the 19th century. She probably first met Walker in about 1866 at the time his sister Annie Louisa Walker ("cousin Annie") joined Mrs Oliphant's household. Later she supported and educated her nephew Frank Wilson who took a first class in Civil Engineering at Cooper's Hill engineering college and began a promising engineering career in India. Sadly in 1879 after only four years in India, Frank died of fever at age 25.
British publishing information
Periodical: Bolton Weekly Journal and District News & others 17 Apr - 30 Oct 1886