Five odd women - women without husbands - are the subject of this powerful novel, set in Victorian London, by a writer whose perceptions about people, particularly women, would be remarkable in any age and are extraordinary in the 1890s. The story concerns the choices that five different women have to make and what those choices imply about men's and women's status in society and relationship to each other.
Alice and Virginia Madden, suddenly left adrift by the death of their improvident father, must take grinding and humiliating "genteel" work. Terrified of sharing their fate, their younger sister Monica accepts a proposal of marriage from a man who gives her financial security but makes her life wretched.
Interwoven with their fortunes are Mary Barfoot and Rhoda Nunn, who are dedicating their lives to training young women in skills they can use to support themselves. Their broader aim is to help free both sexes from whatever distorts or depletes their humanity - including, if necessary, marriage. Into their lives comes Mary's engaging and forceful cousin Everard Barfoot, and as he and Rhoda become locked in an increasingly significant and passionate struggle, Rhoda finds out through the refining fire what "love" sometimes means and what it means to be true to herself.