Florentine Vivier, a French dressmaker, gives birth to an illegitimate son and accuses an Englishman, Lord Frederick Purvis, of being the boy’s father. When Lord Frederick and his family refuse to recognize the baby, Florentine stabs Lord Frederick to death, a crime for which she receives the maximum prison sentence; she entrusts her son, whom she calls Hyacinth Robinson, to Miss Amanda Pynsent, a poor dressmaker, who raises the boy without telling him the unfortunate circumstances surrounding his birth.
Years later, Mrs. Bowerbank, a prison matron, visits Miss Pynsent to tell her that Florentine is dying in the prison hospital and had asked to see her son, now ten years of age. Miss Pynsent consults Mr. Vetch, a violinist in a Bloomsbury theater, who is her closest friend. On his advice, she takes Hyacinth to the prison but does not tell him at first that the woman is his mother. The grim prison frightens him, and at first his mother speaks only in French, saying that she fears he is ashamed of her. She embraces him pitifully before the matron bustles the visitors away.
During the following years, the rowdy family of Millicent Henning, Hyacinth’s childhood friend, is ejected from their quarters next to Miss Pynsent’s shop in Lomax Place. When Mr. Vetch has a copy of Lord Bacon’s Essays bound as a gift for Hyacinth, he meets the master bookbinder Eustache Poupin, who had been exiled from France after the Commune of 1871. Mr. Vetch learns that he and Poupin have a common bond of hate for the existing social and political fabric. Poupin secures an apprenticeship for Hyacinth with Crookenden’s bookbindery and teaches him French and socialism.
Millicent Henning, grown to a bold, handsome young woman, unexpectedly appears in Lomax Place to renew her friendship with Hyacinth. Poupin introduces Hyacinth to a chemist and revolutionary named Paul Muniment, who takes him to visit his disabled sister, Rose Muniment. There they meet Lady Aurora Langrish, who devotes her time to caring for the poor and who admires Paul a great deal. She is a spinster much neglected by her large and wealthy family. Paul leads Hyacinth more deeply into revolutionary activity. Hyacinth has meanwhile looked up the newspaper reports of...
(The entire section is 922 words.)