Accompanied by three servants and his uncle, a young gentleman named Mr. Bartholomew arrives in the remote town of C--------- in the county of Devon. One of the servants, Farthing, a blustering old soldier, explains to the gossips at the Black Hart Inn that Bartholomew has come to coax his wealthy aunt out of some of her fortune. The reader soon learns, though, that Bartholomew is merely an alias for the unnamed younger son of a duke. Farthing is in truth a hired actor named Jones, and the man pretending to be his uncle is another actor named Brown. The servant Louise is Rebecca, a woman rented from a London brothel for this mysterious journey. The group soon disappears, except for the deaf-mute servant Dick, who is discovered hanged.
The bulk of this lengthy book focuses on the investigation conducted by Henry Ayscough, a lawyer employed by the duke, to determine exactly what happened. From July through October, when he submits his final but inconclusive report, Ayscough, a firm supporter of the traditional social order, considers hypotheses involving elopement, witchcraft, anarchism, and religious dissent.
The reader, too, must undergo the laborious task of sifting fiction from fiction in the process of being liberated from the dogma of any conventional perspective. Not only in the epilogue but also throughout the book, the author playfully intrudes to provide a wealth of information about the eighteenth century and to assert, and demonstrate, our freedom from both history and story. He provides a maggot not only in the larval image that appears to Rebecca during an awesome encounter in a cave but also in an archaic secondary meaning of the word: whim.