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.
However, 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...
(The entire section contains 2768 words.)
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