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The story begins in 1846, at Combe-Raven in West Somersetshire, the country residence of the happy Vanstone family. The first scene is a wonderfully dramatic legal thriller. The reader is introduced to Mr Andrew Vanstone, Mrs. Vanstone and their two daughters Norah, age 26, happy and quiet, and the irrepressible Magdalen, just 18, beautiful but with a steely jaw. They live in peace and contentment, looked after by their governess, Miss Garth. Magdalen likes nothing better than to read at her window while her personal maid combs through and through her long hair. “Private theatricals!” is the cry as she signs up for a performance of Sheridan’s “The Rivals”. She finds herself a talented actress and falls in love with Frank Clare, the good for nothing but handsome son of a neighbor, whom she entices into the play. They are to be married, their fathers agree, and then the bottom drops out of their world. Mr. Vanstone is killed in a local train crash, and Mrs Vanstone dies in childbirth. The girls discover from the lawyer Mr. Pendril that their parents have only been married a few months and the wedding invalidated their will (which left everything to the daughters). The daughters have no name, no rights, no property and the entire family fortune is inherited by an older brother Michael Vanstone who has been estranged from the family for many years. With the help only of their loyal governess Miss Garth, the two girls set out to make their own way in the world.

From the second scene onwards, the character of the novel completely changes. It becomes comic as the confidence tricksters try to outdo each other. This scene is in York, where Magdalen enlists the help of Captain Wragge, a distant relative of her mother’s and a professional swindler. He helps get Magdalen started on the stage in return for a share of the proceeds. His wife Matilda, a huge clown of a lady, has to be kept in check. Her head is full of recipes and dressmaking.

Scene three is in Vauxhall Walk, Lambeth. Magdalen, having earned some money, forsakes the stage and plots to get her inheritance back. Michael Vanstone has died and his only son, Noel Vanstone is sickly and looked after by his housekeeper, Virginie Lecount, a shrewd woman who hopes to inherit his money. Magdalen goes to Lambeth disguised as Miss Garth to see how the land lies, but Mrs Lecount sees through her disguise and cuts a bit of cloth from the hem of her brown alpaca dress as a keepsake.

Scene four is in Aldborough, Suffolk, where Magdalen tries to carry out her plot to regain her inheritance by marrying Noel Vanstone under an assumed name, with Captain and Mrs Wragge posing as her uncle and aunt. Wragge and Lecount plot and plot in their attempts to outdo each other. In the end, Lecount is sent on a false errand to Zurich, and Magdalen and Noel are married. Captain Wragge arranges the marriage on condition that he will never have to see Magdalen again once it has happened.

Scene five is in Balliol Cottage, Dumfries. Noel is alone, as his wife has left to visit her sister Norah in London. Mrs Lecount is back from Zurich and explains who his wife really is, with the help of the cut bit of cloth from the brown placa dress. Noel at her direction rewrites his will, cutting off his wife and leaving a legacy to Lecount and everything else to Admiral Bartram his cousin. He encloses a secret letter, asking Admiral Bartram that the money be passed to young George Bartram, but only on the condition that he marry someone not a widow within six months, thus ensuring that Magdalen cannot marry George for the money. The strain of this scheming is all too much and he dies from a weak heart.

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