This is the story of Catherine and Hester Vernon, and the relationship between the two women and the one man whom both of them loved; Catherine as a son and Hester as a woman. Catherine once saved the family bank from ruin at the hands of Hester’s reckless father when he fled the country in disgrace, and Hester and her mother return years later as paupers living at the charity of cousin Catherine, as do several other assorted Vernon relatives. Hester makes a poor impression on Catherine on her first day there and for years the two women barely tolerate each other. Catherine rules the “Vernonry” as it’s called where those relatives live in relative comfort and she amuses herself watching their minor quirks and foibles as they gossip and interact with each other. As Hester matures, she catches the eye of two of her cousins, Harry and Edward Vernon, Edward being the apple of Catherine’s eye and loved as she would her own son. Edward chafes under Catherine’s thumb and plots to free himself forever, but he must find a way to obtain funds to do so, which could lead to the downfall of all the Vernons and the bank.
Sound boring? Actually it’s not; it’s a fascinating tale of two women and their intertwining relationships between themselves and others. I loved the secondary characters, especially the two Misses Vernons, such delightfully catty old maids! Oliphant does a fine job of setting her scenes and giving you a wonderful in depth look at a slice of Victorian England.
Just be warned, this is not an action packed, sit on the edge of your seat, can’t put it down until its finished type of novel. This is a story to savor and enjoy the multi-faceted characters like a fine red wine or a box of chocolates (or both!!). If you are looking for high action and adventure, this is not the book for you. Oliphant is superb and although she doesn’t quite come up the ten star standards of George Eliot, this is one author well worth taking the time to check out. If you are a first time reader to this author your best bet is to try her delightful Miss Marjoribanks first, a very funny and lighthearted romp and a refreshing change from the strum and drang of most 19C British literature. Five stars.