Catherine Vernon is the head of the family bank, reputed in the Home Counties to be 'solid as the Bank of England'. Loved and revered by the people of Redborough, she is nevertheless seen as a none-too-benevolent despot by those of her family who, dependent upon her charity, live in the nearby 'Vernonry'. Catherine is a proud businesswoman, in firm control of her life, her work and her family. She lives with her young cousin Edward, grooming him to succeed her in the bank, loving him like a son. Then fourteen-year-old Hester and her widowed mother join the tenants of the Vernonry and Catherine finds she has met her match in this strong-willed girl. We watch as Hester grows up through the 1860s and 70s and as their silent confrontation comes to a head over their love for the same man: an absorbing struggle which alters forever the fortunes of Hester and the Vernon family.