Life at Combe-Raven in Somerset is idyllic for the Vanstone family. Father Andrew is a successful businessman while his wife stays at home with their two daughters, 25 year old Norah and irrepressible 18 year old Magdalen. The sisters are looked after by their kindly governess Miss Garth. In this happy atmosphere Magdalen find love with local man Frank Clare and discovers a love of acting. In an amateur production she takes two very different roles, demonstrating a natural talent at character acting.
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But this happy world is shattered by the unexpected death of Andrew Vanstone in a train crash. Mrs Vanstone is struck down by the shock and dies shortly after, leaving the sisters bereft of both parents. Only now do they learn the reason for a secret journey their parents made; the family lawyer Mr Pendril reveals to them that their parents were only married recently. Had they lived they no doubt would have made the necessary legal changes to their will, but as it is, because the sisters were born out of wedlock, they will inherit nothing. Everything will go to Andrew's estranged brother Michael Vanstone. The sisters appeal him but to no avail, all they have in the world is their faithful guardian Miss Garth. Magdalen even loses Frank.
The sisters go to live with Miss Garth's sister but while Norah prefers to accept the their situation with quiet stoicism and get a job, Magdalen will not. She vanishes, leaving a note for Norah, and sets out to retrieve their fortune. In York she encounters the black sheep of her mother's family, Captain Wragge, who initially plans to collect the reward on her. Magdalen gets Wragge to help her start a stage career, though she is really just training and earning some money for the next part of her plan.
Michael Vanstone dies and leaves everything to his sickly son Noel. Noel Vanstone is no great adversary but he is looked after by the sharp-witted Mrs Lecount. Now Magdalen puts her stage training to use. Disguising herself and pretending to be Miss Garth, she visits the Vanstone house where she pleads, and even threatens, to try and get the sisters their share of the inheritance. But Noel is as intransigent as his father. Worse still, Magdalen has aroused the suspicions of Mrs Lecount, who is now on her guard.
As Miss Garth, Mr Pendril and the distraught Norah continue to search for her, Magdalen changes her plan. She and Wragge, and his wife, now move to Aldborough under the name Bygrave, where Magdalen has a brief encounter with a merchant seaman named Kirke who used to know her father. Magdalen intends to marry the weak-hearted Noel and let nature take its course. It would not be her first choice, but Magdalen now has nothing left in her life but the desire to see justice done. Captain Wragge is not happy about this plan, not least because of its illegality, but with money and the promise that he will not be involved after the wedding, he agrees to help.
With the charming Captain distracting Mrs Lecount, Magdalen's careful seduction of Noel Vanstone goes well, but a letter from Miss Garth (answering inquires made by Mrs Lecount) makes the house-keeper suspicious. But Wragge comes up with a plan, he forges a letter making Mrs Lecount believe her brother in Zurich is dying, and she leaves immediately. Magdalen and Noel get married as soon as she is out of the country.
Although they try to hide from her, Mrs Lecount tracks down the newlyweds. Since learning that she was tricked, Mrs Lecount has made inquiries and now tells Noel who his new wife really is. Noel, now terrified his wife will murder him, begs for her help and Mrs Lecount outlines an elaborate scheme to cut Magdalen out of his will, removing the motive for her to kill him. Under Lecount's instruction, Noel makes a new will leaving his fortune to his cousin Admiral Bartram. He also writes a secret letter telling Bartram that the money is to be passed to the Admiral's son George on the condition he marry someone other than a widow (thus outwitting Magdalen) within 6 months. But the strain of all this has been too much for Noel Vanstone, and he dies.
Bu Magdalen will not give up, she disguises herself as a maid and joins Admiral Bartram's household to try and learn the contents of the will. Sneaking about at night she manages to read most of the will and letter before being caught by Bartram's old friend Mazey. Mazey likes her too much to turn her in to the police but does throw her out of the house. Alone, penniless and friendless Magdalen almost ends up in the workhouse but is luckily discovered by Kirke, who remembers her and takes her in. he is clearly in love with to her.
Elsewhere, Norah has become engaged to George Bartram, and so her family fortune will return to her by honest means. The sisters are finally reunited, happy with their respective men.
Best part of story, including ending:
What I like about this story is that it paints a picture of a time and a problem which would never exist today. The situation in the book really did occur in Victorian England.
Best scene in story:
The scene in which Magdalen creeps through Admiral Bartram's house and through the hall known as 'freeze-your-bones' is wonderfully atmospheric.
Opinion about the main character:
I like Magdalen's persistence, she will not give up on what she knows is right even if it means destroying herself in the process.