After they finish writing their final examinations for the British Bar, Lewis Eliot and Charles March go out together to celebrate. A month later, both of the young men learn that they passed the test, and they begin a year of apprenticeship in London. They see each other often and soon become the closest of friends. Although Lewis often speaks about personal matters as well as his problems with Herbert Getliffe, with whom he is studying, Charles remains secretive for a long time. One day, he invites Lewis to dinner at his father’s London house and mentions that his family is Jewish.
Lewis is dazzled by the March establishment and charmed by both Charles’s vivacious sister, Katherine, and his father, Leonard, a wonderful storyteller. When Katherine balks at attending one of the dances where wealthy Jewish young people are supposed to meet their future mates, Leonard becomes extremely angry. When Charles takes his sister’s side, Leonard turns on him as well.
Charles later tells Lewis that he intends to leave the law, so that he will no longer be trapped in the small society of which his family is a part. Both Leonard and his brother, Sir Philip March, find it hard to believe that this is not just a passing fancy. Leonard threatens action if Charles persists in his plan.
During the summer, Herbert’s brother Francis, a likable, sensible young scientist, is a frequent guest at the March country house, even though, like Lewis, he is a Gentile and therefore presumably not a marital possibility. When Ann Simon, an attractive Jewish girl, comes to visit, she argues with Charles about Herbert. Her antipathy is based on what she was told by Ronald Porson, an unsuccessful lawyer. At dinner, Leonard is shocked to discover that Ann is a political radical, but when he finds that she has good family connections, he is somewhat reassured.
Now desperately in love, Ann and Charles begin meeting secretly in Lewis’s room. Ann urges Charles to become a doctor, like her father, and Charles becomes convinced that it is a good idea. Leonard thinks it is ridiculous and informs Charles that he changed his mind about making him financially independent. He will continue paying an allowance, but otherwise Charles can fend for himself.
Ironically, Katherine, not Charles, is in love with someone outside the faith. When she announces her engagement to Francis, Leonard puts up only a token struggle and then proceeds with wedding plans. His brother is marrying into the March family, so Herbert warns them, through Lewis, that Porson is agitating for a government inquiry into Herbert’s financial affairs. Porson alleges that Herbert used insider information, obtained in dealings with the government, for his own advantage. Katherine and Francis are married, and Charles and Ann begin to make their own wedding plans. With Charles’s permission, Katherine approaches their father, hoping he will now change his mind and make Charles independent, but Leonard remains adamant.
Five years later, the family celebrates Leonard’s seventieth birthday. Katherine and Francis have two children and are expecting a third. Charles and Ann have none, but Charles has completed his medical studies and has a good practice.
Porson is still hoping for revenge, not only on Herbert but also on the family of the man who took Ann away from him. This time the rumors about government leaks involve several officials, including Philip, a parliamentary secretary with hopes of a ministry. Lewis discovers that Ann is working for the Communist newspaper that is leading this new attack, and that she gathered the information they intend to print. He begs...
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Ann to get the story stopped, if only out of consideration for Charles. Ann tries, but wins only a postponement.
At Charles’s insistence, Ann accepts Leonard’s invitation to dinner, although she does not feel well. During the evening, she becomes much worse, and her illness is diagnosed as pneumonia. She has to remain at the March home. When she realizes that she might die, Ann tells Charles where she secreted some documents that, if published, will result in the newspaper’s being suppressed. Charles, she says, can decide whether or not to use them.
During Ann’s long illness, Leonard faces the fact that he wants her to die; however, she survives. Shortly before Ann is finally well enough to leave the March home, Francis and Katherine confront Charles and ask him what he intends to do. If he asks her, they point out, Ann will stop the newspaper. Charles says that he would never ask that of his wife, not even to spare his father and the family reputation. In that case, Katherine and Francis say they never want to see Ann again, and Charles regretfully replies that also means a complete break with him.
When the final article in the series appears, Philip is dismissed from his government post. His career is finished. Leonard calls Charles to his home in order to inform him that from now on, there will be no monthly allowance. Lewis continues to attend Leonard’s parties. One evening after he leaves the March house, Lewis looks back. Before long, he thinks, the lights will go out and Leonard will be left alone.