The Reverend Mr Buchanan holds an important position in the university town of St Rule's, but his means are small. As he and his wife struggle to do the required entertaining, and to make many necessary expenditures for his family, he turns to his rich old friend Mr Anderson, who lends him three hundred pounds.
When Mr Anderson dies suddenly, Mr Buchanan knows that he should notify the executor of the estate about this loan; but he postpones this action until his opportunity has passed, leaving him obsessed with guilt and fear. The once kind father and husband sinks into a deep and angry depression.
Several other characters' stories are told, especially that of his daughter Elsie, who learns that the unusual freedom of her childhood must give way to the more circumscribed life of a young woman; and who has not forgotten her childhood friendship with a fisher's son, Johnny Wemyss.
Biographical and other notes
The town of "St Rule's" is based on the university town of Saint Andrews in Fife, which Margaret Oliphant visited every year for several weeks. She had many friends there including two of her closest friends, Principal Tulloch of St Mary's College and his wife Jane.
This story line was perhaps inspired by Principal Tulloch's own bouts of severe depression. Mrs Oliphant describes in her Autobiography (pages 89-90) how in the first episode of this depression, Principal Tulloch had become overwhelmed by a sense of guilt from the seemingly inconsequential act of having misconstrued a Latin passage in front of an audience.
This novel is dedicated to "Denny", Margaret Oliphant's niece Janet whom she had raised along with her sister Madge. Denny was a gifted artist; and her 1895 sketch of Mrs Oliphant (above) now hangs in the Portrait Gallery of the National Galleries of Scotland.