Harry Joscelyn was born into an ancient but fallen family in the Shap Fells region of Cumberland. The family's social status has declined and is now on the level of a yeoman farmer, due in part to the loud, brutish head of the family. Finally 24-year-old Harry can bear with his father no more and runs away. Almost by chance he travels to Ligorno, Italy and builds a new life there under another name - and falls in love with someone who seems far above him.
In Cumberland we get to know Harry's older sister Joan, the unpaid working daughter who runs the dairy, keeps the accounts, supervises the servants, and more. As is usually true of Margaret Oliphant's female characters, she values and respects herself despite her outward situation. Joan is considered a "spinster" at 30 years of age - until someone interesting comes courting.
In the last portion of the novel, which takes place after ten years, we also get to know Harry's little sister Liddy, now twenty, who has dreamed of finding Harry.
This novel is not entirely successful, but as always in Oliphant novels there is much of interest in the settings and characters.