Dinah Driffield has grown up happy and content in the upper middle class of society in Leeds in the north of England. Her family is numerous and loving, her friends many and her year is a satisfactory round of charitable work, social events, and summer visits to nearby Harrowgate. She expects that she will marry within her class and continue her life in much the same pattern. Her opinions of the aristocracy are low. On the evidence of limited association and much superficial evidence, Dinah believes all noblemen to be expensive idlers.
All her preconceptions are challenged, on a summer visit to her grandmother in Harrowgate, by a meeting with Sebastian Delamain, Viscount Holly. Holly is inquisitive, active and unpretentious. Though obviously disconcerted by family life as she understands it, he quickly becomes a favourite of her several brothers and sisters, and engages her affections with remarkable ease and grace.
The summer of 1812 is coloured, for the manufacturers of the north, by the activities of those calling themselves Luddites who are desperately opposed to the new machinery changing the cloth manufacturing industry. The Luddite riots and frame breaking create a tense autumn during which Sebastian tries to convince Dinah that aristocrats, like people of all classes, deserve to be considered on individual merits.
Holly finds nothing difficult or confusing about their growing attachment and is convinced that their love is all they need to create whatever future they wish for themselves. Dinah, torn between her love for the viscount and her loyalty to her class, cannot believe that society's barriers can be easily overcome. Extraordinary events will be required to convince her. Sebastian, with the love of his life and a whole new family at hazard, is willing to undertake any challenge.
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Dinah remonstrated with her friend. She tried to turn Juliana's course, and looked about, with little hope of reprieve, for Mrs. Hesler. She could not spy that lady, and so she attempted to remind her friend that one did not 'join the gentlemen' but waited for them to seek out the ladies. Juliana would not be deterred.
Dinah trailed her across the room to where Sebastian and Matherton stood in close conversation before an ornate fireplace replete with a warming blaze. They were unaware of the ladies' approach.
Juliana was about to speak a gay greeting when Matherton's unmistakable drawl halted her words. Dinah, spying John nearby, beckoned to him urgently. He came to her side with an inquiring look, but was obedient to her hushing gesture.
"So the merchant class is enlarged with another Driffield pup, eh?" Matherton spoke too loudly.
"Keep your voice down, for pity's sake," Sebastian urged. His next words were lost in the music heralding the new set.
John and Dinah were frozen with outrage at the disdain in Matherton's tone.
Miss Hesler was again on the point of speaking, but Matherton continued, "Did our fine Dr. Hesler assist with the delivery then? Gad, how can these people be so happy with their dreary, middle class lives--trade, medicine, manufacturing? 'S been an illuminating holiday, but I think I'll toddle back to London soon."
Juliana's blue eyes filled with tears of humiliation. Dinah stifled a surge of wrath with her concern for her friend.
The gentlemen turned at that moment. At the sight of Dinah, John and Juliana so near, Sebastian's face filled with mortification and anger at his friend. "Why don't you leave tomorrow, Matherton? I think you have just done enough."
There was not even embarrassment in Matherton's smooth face. "I thought you shared my views," he said in vague protest.
"Never," Sebastian stated.
John Driffield offered his arm to Miss Hesler, who took it, even as the tears blinded her wide eyes. They walked away from Holly and Matherton without a word.
Bernard Humberstone blundered up to Dinah, unaware of the undercurrents swirling in the vicinity. He said, "Miss Driffield, say you are not partnered for this dance! You will do me the honour?"
She took his proffered arm in silent acquiescence, and allowed herself to be born away with no more than flaming look of reproach at Matherton. She did not look at Sebastian at all.
"Cut are we?" Matherton's voice could easily be heard by those who had just departed his milieu. "They're in a swivet over nothing. How could they imagine I was looking to fix my interest with a surgeon's daughter?" He continued, "I'm for London. Why don't you come with me Holly? You've spent enough time here."
Dinah could hear Sebastian's final quiet words as she entered the set, even as her gaze followed her brother and the unhappy Juliana.
"You are an unconscionable ass, Burleigh; I think I have not known you before. No, I won't depart to London just now, but do feel free to go yourself. I really think I cannot bear to have you about anymore. And if Miss Hesler suffers one whit by your actions, I'll have your liver and lights--if John Driffield does not beat me to it."