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"[Gissing] achieved one of the very few novels in English that can be compared with those of the French naturalists who were his contemporaries." —Walter Allen, The English Novel
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 forceful and engaging 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.