Bella is a bright, clever girl who trains as a school teacher, determined to escape the limitations of her genteel impoverishment and become a “mistress of her own life”. However, the manager of her school, the Rev Archibald Leeper, a married clergyman, develops a morbid attachment to her, which is to colour the rest of her life. Leeper places Bella in an untenable position; her only escape is to seduce a young army corporal, Nicholas Beaver, to hide the fact that her reputation has been ruined by the clergyman. She marries Nicholas and they have five children. However, when Nicholas dies at the age of 40 from syphilis, Bella realizes belatedly that she is not the only one who has been keeping sexual secrets.