Helen's story begins with the death of her guardian, Dean Stanley. She goes to stay with the Collingwoods, who tell her that her guardian has squandered his entire fortune and left behind debts, but that her own inheritance is safe. She dedicates it to paying off her guardian's debts, choosing to live off the small fortune that came to her when her parents died. She then gets an invitation to live with her childhood friend, Cecilia, née Davenant, who has married General Clarendon; the couple lives at Clarendon Park. Helen and Cecilia are especially close because Cecilhurst, where Cecilia grew up, was the neighboring estate to the Deanery.
The General, because of an earlier disappointment in love, decided to marry a woman who was not in love with anyone before him, and although Cecilia has had some sort of a relationship with Colonel d'Aubigny, she claims that while d'Aubigny admired her, the feeling was not reciprocated. Here we also meet the General's blunt sister Esther Clarendon, who does not like Cecilia much when she finds that Cecilia is not strictly honest, sometimes choosing instead to be diplomatic, sometimes seeming to 'forget' things that might be unpleasant to others. Esther prefers people who do not mind hurting others with the truth to those who are not strictly truthful. Here we also meet the General's ward, Granville Beauclerc. Beauclerc, who is not much younger than the General, is the son of the first fiancé of Cecilia's mother, Lady Davenant. This man had proven unworthy, so Lady Davenant broke with him before their engagement became public, and the man went on to marry the woman who bore Granville Beauclerc. Lady Davenant has remained in contact with Beauclerc as a sort of ward of her own. Esther leaves when Beauclerc arrives because she is in love with him and knows that he does not love her. Beauclerc turns out to be romantic and generous: he wants to give up his own fortune, or part of it, to re--establish a friend in his estate nearby; this friend and his family lost the estate due to the father's debts. Everyone warns him that the whole family is profligate, but Beauclerc helps the family nonetheless.
Helen's greatest hope is that everyone will like her and that she will be comfortable with everyone else. She finds the General cold at first, but they warm to one another; she sees that his temper is austere and that his morals are rigorous and fairly unforgiving, but that as long as she is morally clean, she has his support. Her friendship with Beauclerc is more difficult, because Cecilia suggested, before Beauclerc arrived, that Helen should marry him; she is consequently extremely self-conscious around him. Cecilia then tells one of her little lies: she tells Helen that he is already engaged, virtually a married man. This allows Helen to relax and she starts to fall in love with him. When he begins to propose to her, however, Helen sends him on his way, thinking him inconstant. The confusion get cleared up, however, and they eventually become engaged.
Cecilia has not told the General that she was in love with d'Aubigny - in fact corresponded with him - because she knows the truth will make the General suspect her morals; furthermore, she thinks d'Aubigny has destroyed the letters. Problems arise because Lady Davenant, politically active mostly on her husband's behalf, has had a private letter concerning matters with which her husband was involved, and the contents of this letter have been leaked - through her page Carlos, as it turns out, who was in the pay of one of Lord Davenant's opponents. Helen suspects him and proves his guilt, and this earns her his enmity; he escapes and gets involved with d'Aubigny's heir. Carlos finds Cecilia's letters and sends them to the General with no cover letter explaining who had written them or who was sending them. The General cannot tell the difference between Cecilia's and Helen's writing, and because Cecilia wrote the letters under a pseudonym, she is able to allow the General to believe they were written by Helen. She lets him believe, in fact, that the relationship involved all three of them - Cecilia, d'Aubigny, and Helen - with Cecilia only marginally involved as someone d'Aubigny had liked a little, really preferring Helen.
Cecilia convinces Helen to go along with the ruse, explaining that otherwise, the uproar that would follow might kill her mother, who has attacks under stress - heart attacks, apparently. Cecilia promises that she will unfold the painful truth upon the departure of her mother, who has been visiting at Clarendon Park. The trusting Helen, out of love for Lady Davenant and concern too for the welfare of the pregnant Cecilia, goes along with this, albeit with grave doubts. She worries about the General's reaction to her, knowing how strictly moral he is. He is in fact fairly stern and forgives her lapse from morality only because she has been honest enough to own up to it. She realizes that once it comes out that she has not been honest, he will judge her yet more harshly, even though she will be cleared of the indiscretion of corresponding with a man to whom she was not engaged. Cecilia keeps putting off telling him the truth, which -makes it harder to explain to the General that the lie was a temporary measure meant to preserve Lady Davenant. And worse, for Helen, is that the General expects her to tell Beauclerc, and she cannot, since she does not have any guilt to admit, and she cannot expose her friend at this point.
The situation escalates when it becomes clear that the letters are going to be published and that Helen has been identified as the female correspondent; her public fame is threatened, and while Beauclerc has trusted her thus far on the issue, not demanding any explanation, she feels she cannot ask him to continue to do so. She therefore tells him she frees him from the engagement and will not reconsider. He, meanwhile, is on the continent, to which he has fled because he has duelled with and perhaps fatally injured a man named Churchill. Before Beauclerc proposed to Helen, Churchill had implied to her that he loved her but she told him she did not love him. Churchill had been slightly involved in bringing out the letters as a means of revenge on Helen, but the person who had been instrumental in arranging to have the letters published is the man whose estate Beauclerc had rebuilt and who had masked his own guilt to make Churchill look the more guilty.
Helen is sunk in depression, the more so because she realizes that Cecilia's dishonesty and selfishness have led her to sacrifice Helen's happiness, so she goes to stay with Esther in Wales. She cannot rouse herself out of her depression, however. At last Lady Davenant comes back to England and has Helen meet her in London. Cecilia has suffered from her conscience and decides at last to be honest about everything. The General disowns Cecilia and Lady Davenant is a bit disappointed in Helen, who has allowed herself to be compromised by Cecilia's little lies; she had earlier warned Helen about her daughter's problem and told her not to fall victim to it at any cost. When the dust settles, Beauclerc and Helen become re-engaged; the General and Cecilia are re-united; and Lady Davenant dies, accepting blame for her daughter, saying she had not been a dedicated enough mother.
© 1999 J A Shaffer / Sheffield Hallam University