Basil, son of a father who values the family pedigree and who would not let him marry below his station, falls in love at first sight with a girl he sees on a bus. He follows her and discovers she is Margaret Sherwin, only daughter of a linen draper. He persuades her father to let him marry her secretly. He agrees on the condition, that, as his daughter is only seventeen, they live apart for the first year. At first the secret works, but then the mysterious Mannion, whose emotions cannot be read in his face, returns from abroad. On the last night of the year Basil follows Margaret and Mannion and discovers them in flagrante delicto. The tension up to this point is beautifully controlled by the writer. Basil has suffered estrangement from his dear sister Clara because of Margaret, only to discover she is not what he thought. He attacks Mannion in the street and tries to murder him, but succeeds only in mutilating his face by pushing it into the fresh tarmacadam in the road. Margaret goes to visit Mannion in hospital, catches typhus from another patient and dies. Basil has lost everything, including his relationship with his family. Mannion swears revenge and Basil flees from him to Cornwall. The dénouement is worthy of Conan Doyle, set among whirlpools and cliffs near Lands End. Mrs Sherwin, Margaret’s mother, was Collins’ very first mad woman.
In her introduction (Oxford World's Classics Edition), Dorothy Goldman concentrates on psychoanalytic theories that Basil and Mannion, Margaret and Clara, are each like opposite halves of the same person, but she appears to miss the deeply flawed character of Basil, who rushes into marriage with a woman he does not know at all. His first disappointment is that Margaret is not as intelligent as he had hoped.