The beginning of the novel is set in England. The central character, William Crimsworth, is an orphan. He is the ward of an aristocratic family who educate him; but he remains a dependant. He decides to leave his cold and indifferent relatives to visit his prosperous brother Edward in the industrial North, where he hopes to find work. But his brother turns out to have a sadistic and tyrannical nature. He is introduced to Yorke Hunsden, an ambitious young entrepreneur who often visits the Continent. William decides to seek his fortune there and, through a friend of Hunsden’s, he finds employment as a teacher in a boys’ school in Brussels, run by M. Pelet. Later he is also asked to teach at the neighbouring school for girls, a Catholic ‘Pensionnat’, run by the headmistress Zoraïde Reuter. Though he is initially intrigued and attracted by her, he slowly discovers her deceitful and manipulative nature as he finds himself involved in a triangle involving power-games.
His love for her is dead, and he now feels a growing interest in a pupil-teacher at Mme Reuter’s school, Frances Henri. More power-games by Zoraïde threaten the awakening love of William and Frances. This forces William to bring the relationship out into the open and act decisively. He resigns from his position at the school but he finds a new post; Frances now works as a seamstress, a lace-mender. They finally find happiness when they marry.
Frances however, refuses to give up her work; she wishes to maintain her independence and has ambitions to run her own school.
The novel ends where it started, in England, where William and Frances, now comfortably off and with a son, pass their lives in domestic happiness.