The time of the novel is approximately the 1860’s; the place, Avonmouth, a sea-side resort; the unlikely heroine, Rachel Curtis, pedant, frustrated social reformer, self-styled old maid. The plot charts the stages of her downfall from a position of confident intellectual superiority to humble acceptance of her limitations both as a thinker and as a philanthropist. The method used to reveal the absurdity and danger of assumptions is dramatic, usually comic, irony. Through her cousin, the gentle, recently widowed Fanny Temple, whose arrival in Avonmouth initiates the action, Rachel meets a number of people who challenge her ideas. They shake her unwarranted confidence in her own judgment but rescue her from the consequences of her folly. Ironically, Rachel has patronized, snubbed or suspected every one of them . Yet she admires and trusts the chance-met, sinister Mauleverer. He takes advantage of her desire to help the young lace makers of the town, with disastrous consequences for them and for her. Yet the novel ends on a cheerful note with two weddings, plus the revelation that it is not Rachel but the poor cripple, Ermine Williams, sister of the Temples’ governess, who is the true Clever Woman.