Kirsteen Douglas's father, the laird of Drumcarro in Argyllshire, has pride in his many sons - but his daughters count for little. When Kirsteen's brother goes out to India in 1814, he is accompanied by his neighbour Ronald Drummond - both young men having commissions in the Company's service. Ronald and Kirsteen have loved each other silently; and now he whispers to Kirsteen to wait for him, which she promises.
When a terrible misunderstanding results in Kirsteen's father insisting that she marry a rich man, Kirsteen finds no choice but to run away from home to London, where she will be safe from her often violent father. And there she starts her new life as a dressmaker, a position which will grow into much more, as she awaits Ronald's return.
This novel also tells the story of Kirsteen's little sister Jeanie, whose passionate attachment leads to a family tragedy.
Biographical and other notes
Margaret Oliphant's good friend Christina Stewart Rogerson (daughter of Mrs Duncan Stewart) told her the story of an aunt or great-aunt who had had both a love story and a successful career in dressmaking. This true story was the inspiration for Kirsteen. Mrs Oliphant dedicated the novel to Christina Rogerson "with love and respect", which was a bold instance of how Mrs Oliphant stood by her friends - because Christina had recently been publicly involved in one of the greatest sex scandals of the nineteenth century, Crawford vs Crawford and Dilke.
Christina Rogerson's family were the Stewarts of Appin. In searching for clues to the real Scottish dressmaker who inspired this story, it should be noted that there is documentation of a Scottish fancy-dressmaker/court dressmaker in London, in or near Oxford Street - a Miss Stewart, who had a thriving business in 1800 or earlier, into at least the 1820s. Miss Stewart was renowned for her inventive spirit and beautiful dresses, and was patronised by the finest Scottish families. She is mentioned several times in Memoirs of a Highland Lady (Elizabeth Grant, 1898): "We went shopping . . . to Miss Stewart's, our delight, cakes and flattery and bundles of finery awaiting us there . . . [dresses] covered with silk, and then with lace or net, and hung about with festoons of lace and beads, garlands of flower, puffings of ribbon, furbelows of all sorts." It is possible that this Miss Stewart was the original of Kirsteen, or more likely (based on the story's timeline) that this Miss Stewart brought her relation "Miss Kirsteen" into the business.
Fyi, the Castle in the novel where the ball is held is Inveraray Castle on Loch Fyne, principal seat of the Duke of Argyll who is Chief of the clan Campbell, the clan which Mrs Oliphant used for the purposes of this story.
British publishing information
Periodical: Macmillan's Magazine Aug 1889 - Aug 1890