The novel is set in the late Victorian period in England. It concerns conflicts in attitude to social class and destitution and religion. The central character is Sir Gilbert Stanley, Tory politician and great landowner. Like many rich men, he had taken peasant mistresses in his youth, later abandoning them with no means of support. These women all died evil deaths, and the children were placed in the workhouse. Sir Gilbert longed secretly for these children and watched their progress to adulthood. Unaware he was their father, the children became absorbed into his household as servants. He favoured them, and their status became ambiguous. The outside world was horrified, and the household imploded. Murder and chaos followed.