Last Updated September 5, 2023.
At the beginning of the novel, Dora Greenfield travels by train from London to Imber Court. Imber Court houses a group of Anglicans, and is located in Gloucestershire. The house is adjacent to a convent for Benedictine nuns, who are a closed order, cloistered from the public.
Dora is going to Imber Court to visit her husband, Paul, a supercilious art historian studying manuscripts belonging to the Imber Abbey dating to the fourteenth century. Six months before her trip, Dora left Paul, but he has since asked her to visit him at Imber despite their tumultuous relationship. In a business-like note, Paul assumes Dora will arrive on a Tuesday with the personal belongings he requests. Disregarding her apprehension at reuniting with her estranged husband in such a strange locale, Dora boards the train.
As she travels, Dora strikes up conversation with two men who are also traveling to Imber Court. Toby Gashe is a young boy who has just finished school and wants to spend some time away before beginning his university education. The other man is James Tayper Pace, a genial figure who used to run a settlement house before joining the lay people at Imber Court.
Dora is somewhat surprised when she sees Paul at the Pendelcote station, mostly because she is struck by his attractiveness all over again. Driving up to the gated house for the first time, Dora is struck by the estate’s provincial beauty. Once inside, Dora meets the elderly matron of the house, Mrs. Marks, before being ushered into a worship service, where she is asked to cover her head. Dora is uncomfortable in the religious atmosphere, wondering if Paul is, too. With the exception of Mrs. Marks, Sister Ursula, who is an extern nun, and mysterious girl with dark hair named Catherine, there are no other women who live at Imber Court.
Later that night, Paul derides Dora for her disgraceful choice to leave their marriage before recounting the legend of the Abbey’s famous missing bell, Gabriel, which he came across in one of the manuscripts. This story somehow softens Paul, and the husband and wife climb into bed together. This legend provides the background that forms the central conflict of the novel’s plot.
In subsequent chapters, the reader discovers that Catherine is studying at Imber Court to become a nun at the nearby Abbey. Catherine’s troubled brother, Nick, lives in the lodge house on Imber property. Catherine convinced the residents of Imber to admit Nick in hopes of saving his soul.
However, Nick has a secret history with Imber’s religious leader, Michael Meade. When Michael was a teacher in his younger days, Nick was one of his teenage students. Michael and Nick fell in love, though their relationship never turned sexual. Fired after Nick told the school’s headmaster about them, Michael abandoned his teaching career to join the clergy. When Nick arrives at Imber, both men keep their mutual history a secret, never alluding to the fact that they even knew each other before.
The Abbey makes plans to replace its missing bell with a new one. The Bishop will christen the bell and give it its name at Imber Court before transferring it to the bell tower.
Several days after his arrival, Toby goes into town with Michael to purchase some gardening equipment to be used in Imber’s market garden—which serves as the estate’s source of income. During the trip, Michael gets drunk at dinner and kisses Toby on the drive back to Imber. Embarrassed, Michael apologizes to the shocked Toby, who nevertheless agrees to keep the incident between them.
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the jealous and spiteful Nick secretly witnesses this kiss, causing the unraveling of the characters’ lives.
While diving in the lake in which the legendary Gabriel had supposedly landed, Toby thinks he finds the submerged bell. Delighted, Dora insists that Toby conspire with her to secretly retrieve the old bell and situate it in the bell tower instead of the new one. Dora finds the notion romantic.
Toby removes the bell from the lake using a tractor, planning to store it in an infrequently used outbuilding until they can deliver it to the Abbey the following night. He meets Dora in the building with the bell in the middle of the night. Overcome with joy at achieving the task of retrieving the bell, Toby leaps on top of Dora in a passionate embrace. Of course, this has more to do with Toby’s uneasiness about his feelings for Michael than any real attraction to Dora. Dora feels both tenderness for the young Toby’s admiration and annoyance that he is distracting her from the task at hand.
On the morning of the ceremony day, Dora is horrified to discover that her former admirer Noel has come to Imber as a journalist to write a story about the Abbey’s new bell. This distracts Dora from the bell exchange mission, since she is worried about the palpable tension between Noel and Paul. The impending arrival of the Bishop has everyone at Imber on edge.
Later that day, Nick confronts Toby after the young man wanders into the lodge dripping wet from the dreary afternoon rain. Nick tells Toby that he knows all about the old bell, him trying to seduce Dora, and him kissing Michael. Nick then threatens that if Toby doesn’t confess to all, he will make a scene.
By accident, Noel took the note Dora intended to give Toby letting him know when and where to meet so they could transport the bell. When she goes to look for Toby at the lodge, she discovers Noel and Nick conspiring to write a story about the secret bell plot. Nick insists there will be a great tumult for Noel to report. Fearing that Noel would cheapen the “miracle” of the bell, Dora deliberately rings the old bell loudly, thereby exposing its existence to the entire community.
The following morning, the ceremony begins to deliver the new bell to the Abbey with much fanfare. In the middle of the causeway to the tower, the bridge collapses suddenly, submerging the bell in the lake and destroying any chance of placing a bell in the tower. Immediately afterward, someone falls into the water, and Dora notices Catherine pushing through the crowd and going into the woods with haste. Blaming herself for the incident, Catherine walks into the lake, presumably to commit suicide. Trying to save her, Dora becomes stuck in the thick mud, which seems to be pulling her in deeper. Screaming for help, Dora attracts the attention of a nun from the other side of the lake, where the Abbey is. The nun rescues both Dora and Catherine, who was already near drowning. After being resuscitated, Catherine clings to Michael, displaying her clear affection for him before everyone present.
Once Catherine is nursed back to health, Mrs. Marks accompanies her on a train to London. Paul and Toby also leave on the same train. Before leaving, Paul hands Dora an envelope that he insists he wants back, saying he expects her at home tomorrow afternoon. After reading the two letters she had written him that were in the envelope, Dora rips them to shreds and scatters the fragments, signifying her resolve to leave Paul for good.
The newspaper article about the incident indicates that the bell conspiracy was to blame for the collapse of the causeway. James lets Michael know that Toby confessed to everything, and James sent the young man away without telling Michael first. When the lodge dog is heard howling incessantly, Michael and James go to investigate only to find that Nick has shot himself. It is later revealed that Nick sabotaged the bridge.
In a month’s time, everyone has deserted Imber Court except for Michael and Dora.
Michael and Dora continue living together at Imber for some time until Dora decides to rent a flat in Bath with a friend. Dora finally finds her own identity independent of a man’s influence, and Michael leases Imber Court to the Abbey indefinitely before departing for London to tell Catherine about her brother’s demise.
The novel ends with Dora, alone at the house for the last time, rowing into the lake and contemplating her future.