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About eighteen years before the novel opens Alwyn Egremont, a forty year old libertine attempts to seduce a beautiful childlike girl of eighteen, a nursery governess in the employment of his clergyman brother. He goes through what he hopes is an invalid but is actually a real marriage with her, but quickly abandons her, and to safeguard his position as heir to his uncle denies the ceremony, and continues his life of pleasure on the Continent. Many years pass, he inherits the family estate, and falling ill while there accepts the help of his nephew Mark, the clergyman's son. Mark soon discovers evidence of the marriage, and with fond memories of his gentle governess, sets out to find her.
She, the aunt who had brought her up, and her daughter Agatha, called Nuttie, live in a middle class road in the suburbs of a Yorkshire town. Alice Egremont supposes herself to be a widow, having heard that Alwyn Egremont had been lost at sea, but a lingering hope that he may be still alive causes her to reject the advances of their kind bachelor neighbour, Mr Dutton, a partner in a local umbrella firm.
The tale opens with a description of the town, the suburb, and the half-built church of which Alice, her aunt and daughter are, like their neighbours, active members, Aunt and niece are both teachers, and Nuttie, a highly intelligent, strong-willed and boisterous seventeen year old, expects to follow in their footsteps. They are a close-knit family, happily integrated into an intellectual, religious and charitable community.
Prodded by his brother and nephew, Mr Egremont comes to inspect his long-lost wife, and struck by her continuing beauty, acknowledges her, and takes her and their daughter to his home. There Alice, guileless and trusting in her husband's love, tries to make him happy, but has the hard task of keeping the peace between father and daughter, for Nuttie resents his past desertion and present selfishness, and deplores her mother's submissive love. Mother and daughter have also to adapt to life in a higher social class, and in this they are successful.
However, after two years Alice dies in childbirth, worn out by her efforts to counteract her husband's opium dependence, in which he is encouraged by his valet. Nuttie takes on her mother's duties, runs the household, cares for her little brother, and tries to keep her father from drugs, but is unable to free him from the influence of his valet. Mark could have helped her, having been offered the post of agent to his uncle, but he and his Scottish fiancée wish to be independent, and Mark invests his small fortune in Mr Dutton's umbrella firm and becomes a junior partner.
Having inherited property in Australia, Mr Dutton leaves the firm and deprived of his wisdom and experience, the business goes bankrupt. Mr Dutton, on his return, finds employment for Mark as a clerk in London, where he and his wife endure their poverty bravely. Mr Dutton is able to give occasional help and encouragement to Nuttie who feels her reliance on him, while he has transferred his love for the mother to the daughter.
The crisis comes when Nuttie's little brother is lost, and kidnapped by fairground people. Mr Dutton finds him and in the joy of his restoration, Nuttie and the rescuer declare their love. However, the child soon dies, as a result of the ill treatment he has received while lost. Nuttie persuades her father to make Mark his heir, and to agree to her own marriage. The valet is dead, and Mr Egremont spends his last years soberly in the home of his daughter and son-in-law.
Thus, one theme can be seen as that of dispossession and repossession. Alice and Nuttie have been dispossessed of their position in society by Alwyn Egremont's abandonment of them, but their reinstatement dispossesses Mark, who had been considered his uncle's heir. The birth of her baby brother means that Nuttie is no longer the heiress, a position she regains on the child's death, but immediately relinquishes in favour of Mark.
However, another important theme is the breaking down of class barriers, and the overcoming of social prejudice, particularly the prejudice of the gentry against the world of work and business. The county families have to be persuaded that Alice Egremont, a governess, is a lady, and fit to associate with them, and the relatives of Mark and his Scottish wife are shocked when he goes into the umbrella firm. Mr Dutton is an example of a successful businessman who carries his religious principles into his working life, and is also a highly cultivated gentleman, but only the more intellectual members of the upper classes accept him at once.
Nuttie is the chief character. She develops from a noisy, enthusiastic schoolgirl to a cultured debutante, and then a rigidly self-controlled young women. The latter stages are shown largely through editorial comment, though her intense love for her little brother is depicted in dialogue and action. The other two leading female characters are the two good wives, Alice in the early part of the novel, and Annaple, Mark's wife, in the latter. They are in marked contrast to each other, though both are devoted wives and mothers. Alice is humble, gentle, lacking in self confidence, though firm to do what she thinks is right. Annaple is full of vitality, confident and joyous, however bad the circumstances. Nuttie's father, Mark and Mr Dutton are mainly seen from the outside. The first has an air of high breeding which masks his weakness, indolence and selfishness. Nuttie may have endured his constant sarcasm the better, in that Mr Dutton had used the same method to control her as a young girl. His switch to admiration of her adult character seems somewhat improbable. Mark's character is more consistent. He is an upright, rather priggish young man, eager to enter what he sees as the real world of work, but not really good at it, and as a devoted husband and father glad to return to a life easier and healthier for his family.
Minor characters are convincing, as are the settings in which they move. There is a considerable variety of scene.
The moral teaching is chiefly concerned with Nuttie's failings, her youthful arrogance and occasional self-deceit, and is generally implicit rather than explicit.