Context: Marian Erle, a poor but virtuous girl who has had a wretched, poverty-stricken childhood, becomes engaged to marry Romney Leigh, the wealthy, socially conscious cousin of the teller of the tale, Aurora Leigh. A wealthy and beautiful widow, Lady Waldemar, asks Aurora to help her break off Romney's marriage, but Aurora refuses to do so and forms a friendship with Marian. On the wedding day, Marian does not appear at the church, but sends a letter saying that she will not marry Romney. Romney unavailingly searches for Marian for months; finally, he gives up the quest and becomes engaged to marry Lady Waldemar. Later, Aurora, on her way to take up residence in Italy, finds Marian in Paris. Marian is now possessed of a baby boy; the situation at first shocks the some-what priggish Aurora. According to Marian, Lady Waldemar, under the guise of being Marian's fast friend, convinced her that marriage with Romney would be a mistake. She therefore sent her off with a woman who was supposed to conduct her to Australia to set her up in a new life. Instead, she takes her to France, drugs her, and has her raped. After a period of madness, Marian regains her sanity and gets a position as a lady's maid to a married coquette who is another man's mistress. When the lady finds that Marian is about to give birth to a baby, she disdainfully dismisses her, saying that it would not be reputable to retain her. Aurora meditates that such women are far worse than actual street-walkers–they are most devilish when they put on a cloak of respectability.
For my part,
I'd rather take the wind-side of the stews
Than touch such women with my finger-end!
They top the poor street-walker by their lie
And look the better for being so much worse:
The Devil's most devilish when respectable.