Esther, (13), is crippled and kept hidden in a cottage by her ignorant and superstitious family. Her joy is her baby sister who plays 'mermaids' with her on the floor, untroubled by her disability. One day her mother takes the baby to a lady who has come to live in the big house on top of the hill, and who makes photographs. Esther has overheard the fishermen's children whispering about the lady’s black hands (stained by the photographic chemicals). They run away when she wants them to model for her because they think photography is witchcraft. Esther is terrified at what may happen to her treasured little sister. She attempts the impossible: to drag herself up the hill after her mother in order to rescue the baby. Halfway up she is discovered by Tom, (15), the local clergyman's son who should be studying but has slipped out with his sketchbook onto the downs to make a drawing of a kestrel in flight.
Tom thinks the girl is hurt and picks her up and carries her to the lighted glass house at the top of the hill where Mrs Cameron is photographing the baby. Esther sees her little sister and thinks she is in danger. She struggles out of Tom’s arms, falls against the glass and it breaks. Mayhem results and the picture is ruined. The photographer, Julia Margaret Cameron, famous for her pioneering photographs, including pictures of children, is furious. Then she sees the beauty of the girl beneath her rags and asks Esther to model for her. That Esther cannot walk is not a disadvantage as posing requires sitting still for long periods.
Mrs Cameron also asks Tom if his father will tutor her son, Henry and the Tennyson boys, and the children become friends. Thus the two children enter the fertile and creative world of the artists and writers who formed the Pre-Raphaelite circle at Freshwater around the Poet Laureate, Alfred Tennyson. The unconventional circle teaches them to value individuality and to overcome prejudice.
Through a series of ups and downs each grows into their true self. Esther is taken up to London by Mrs Cameron to see a doctor and becomes a patient in the new Great Ormond St Hospital for children. She learns to read and returns to the Island, able to walk with crutches, and sets up a stall where she sells souvenirs to the new tourists. Tom gets to meet the artists George Watts and Edward Lear. He makes a drawing of a stricken vessel and sends it off to the Illustrated London News and is offered a job as a roving artist-reporter. There is a suggestion that one day he will defy convention and come back to marry her.