After the matriarch of a rich family dies soon after childbirth, the well-intentioned promise she extracts from her husband not to marry again so long as their daughter is alive leads to tragedy for everyone involved. Julia and Tony Bream are rich and in love. They are one of two wealthy families, along with the Beevers, whose estates lie side by side and who share ownership of a successful bank. But after giving birth to their daughter, Effie, Julia takes ill and it's clear she is going to die. Julia is haunted by memories of her own horrible stepmother, and so before she dies she makes Tony promise not to remarry during Effie's lifetime.
Meanwhile, Julia's friend Rose Armiage has been entertaining a marriage proposal from a man named Dennis Vidal, who works in Asia as a merchant clerk. Rose always appeared to have an overly affectionate attachment to not just Julia, but Tony as well, and Julia's death causes her to abruptly cancel any marital plans with Dennis. Dennis, devastated, leaves the country and tries to forget about Rose.
Life goes on for the Breams and Beevers and the action jumps ahead several years. During this time, something appears to have been brewing between Tony and Rose, but it never gets very far – and no one gives it much credence -- because of Julia's still-binding promise. There are also other rivals for Tony's affections, most notably Jean Martle, a cousin of the Beevers. But of course this is all purely theoretical so long as Effie remains alive.
Things reach a head, though, at Effie's fourth birthday party. During the party, everyone gets involved in the marital prospects of a young man in the Beever household, who has just inherited a sizable portion of the Beever/Bream bank. In the excitement, Tony and the rest of the extended Bream family lose track of little Effie. The family doctor, Rammage, then comes in with horrific news: Effie has been found dead in the nearby river. This is a shock and nobody quite knows what to do. An even greater shock comes when Tony announces that he is the killer.
This is too much to be believed. Rather than go to the police, they all begin interrogating and berating each other in an attempt to find out what happened. Finally Rose, who is deeply in love with Tony, can't take it anymore and she confesses that she is the real killer. Knowing full well that Tony couldn't marry anyone with Effie still alive, Rose took it upon herself to drown Effie. She even intended to blame the whole thing on Jean Martle, thereby removing both a barrier and a rival in one go. Tony knew it was Rose the whole time and was only attempting to protect her.
These are wealthy, insulated people and the shame of it all is too much to bear, let alone the shame of getting the police involved. There is no bringing Effie back to life, after all. The novel wraps up with the present Beevers and Breams entering into a morally complicit arrangement to keep the horrific deed to themselves. Dr. Rammage makes an official claim that Effie died of accidental drowning. And, in a highly convenient coincidence, Dennis Vidal returns from China and Rose agrees to marry him, thus removing her from the Beever/Bream social scene and sparing Tony from any further shame. But everyone knows deep down that the death will continue to hang over them all, no matter how hard they try to bury it.
Best part of story, including ending:
This is one of my least favorite of Henry James's novels. If not my absolute least favorite. The murder element seems to come out of nowhere, and not in a good way. The motivations for it are sparse at best, and the handling of it is weirdly detached and melodramatic at the same time.
Best scene in story:
I would say the scene where the dying Julia Bream extracts her promise from her husband. Because everything after that is pretty blah.
Opinion about the main character:
I found Tony, the ostensible main character, to be extremely boring -- and, in the end, quite pitiful.