There's a secret assignation in 1907 London. Fragile Canon Tom Cross is arguing with married aristocrat Julia Carrington in the bedroom of a Mayfair hotel. Tom is under enormous pressure to marry "to quell the cathedral gossip." While Tom alternates between berating himself for his stupidity and blaming Julia for seducing him, Julia finds it strange that such a handsome man seems to show no interest in tying the knot. Tom's search for love is the anchor on which much of Hardwood's story stands.
Tom travels to the chapter house for a meeting with the Dean and Canon Paul Harris, Tom's primary rival. Attacked in the cab then left for dead in the Surrey Wood, Tom meets beautiful Miranda Thorne, who nurses the bloodied and bruised Tom back to health. She admits to her brother, Simon, that she wants to keep Tom in their Surrey home without consequences. Forced to depend on the kindness of strangers, Tom is drawn to Miranda: "there was something innocent and pure about her and also her brother, as if they belonged to a happier, simpler time." Simon wants Tom to tell Simon and Miranda (and Simon's new social-climbing wife, Gwen) more about his life and his past. Tom is dependable and a good leader, yet he doesn't belong with these innocent "adult versions of Hansel and Gretel." His place is elsewhere, among the dirt and noise of the city, among the ugliness of poverty and illness and people "who seem to have lost all hope."
Like Alfred, Lord Tennyson's Lady of Shallot, Miranda is cursed never to see the world directly. She's tired of Simon treating her like a child, though she knows Simon loves her. Later in London, she sees herself as "the spinster sister," aware that she is an added strain on Simon and Gwen. Luckily, she finds solace in Isabella Grant's studio, where the sweet-faced, matronly older woman gives her the confidence to paint Julia Carrington's portrait. This gives Miranda another glimpse of that "sunrise world" and an understanding of what it's like to live in a society where women are as free as men.
As Haywood's love story unfolds, Miranda blossoms, reveling in her steady and independent life in London. Tom is disillusioned with his church and convinced he's been misunderstood. In Tennyson's poem, the Lady of Shallot finally breaks free of prison when faced with Sir Lancelot and his vision of love that she cannot resist. Similarly, Miranda finds true love with Tom. She can live without the plenitudes and without Julia Carrington's wealth and without being recognized as an artist, but she cannot live without Tom's love or the love of her young son, Sam, who was taken from her as a child. That Miranda's story should become part of the larger tale adds another layer in which all of Harwood's characters are bound by the strictures of Edwardian society and class.
While the tale's themes are universal--the fate of love, grief and infidelity--Harwood leaves no doubt that Tom and Miranda are representative of their time and place. An unlikely and flawed hero (he reminds me a lot of James Runcie's vicar, Sydney James), Tom is fueled by his fear of losing Miranda. Finally realizing he's just too much in Julia's power, Tom's hope is that Julia's desire to protect her hard-won reputation will also protect his.