The heroine, Rachel Grey, is a London seamstress of about 30, neither beautiful nor clever. Although her education ended at 11, she has acquired the habit of thinking, which is deplored by the stepmother with whom she lives. Her thoughts are largely religious ones and entirely self-taught: the church plays no part in this book. It is Rachel's religious feeling which enables her to bear the hardships of her life and makes her try to lighten the load of those around her when they suffer from illness or want. As well as her stepmother, she cares for her two young apprentices, Mary and Jane, for an elderly French neighbour who is shunned by others, for Mary's father who is ruined after trying to set up a shop, and eventually for her own father. This father, who abandoned her as a child, rejects her efforts at reconciliation until he suffers "paralysis" (probably a stroke) and Rachel takes him into her home.