In the small village of Deerbrook, everyone is aware of everyone else’s business, with a rigid pecking order dictated by class and wealth. Two families are in constant rivalry, the Grey's and the Rowland's, each vying for the best regard of their neighbors. When the Misses Ibbotson come to the Grey's after the death of their father, the delicate status quo of the village is disturbed; both young ladies are unmarried and one is very beautiful, soon paired up with the village’s most eligible bachelor, Edward Hope, a physician.
For his part, Edward fancies the younger of the sisters, Margaret, but soon finds himself paired with the beautiful Hester, who is also quite insecure. As a gentleman of noble and Victorian mind, Hope marries Hester and keeps his affection for Margaret to himself. For her part, Margaret has set her affections on another gentleman, Philip Enderby, brother of the formidable Priscilla Rowland.
Mrs. Rowland is outraged when her brother announces his engagement to Margaret Ibbotson, considering her family far superior in breeding and social status, and sets out to undermine the engagement. Those who feel the repercussions most severely are the newly married Hope’s and Margaret, their fortunes markedly affected by the tongue-wagging. With her considerable resources, active imagination, warped sense of injustice and acid tongue, Mrs. Rowland contrives to interfere with Dr. Hope's good name, as well as Margaret's impending marriage.
Merciless in her endeavors, Priscilla Rowland is too often successful in her malicious interference as Margaret, Hester and Edward Hope struggle to maintain their position while undermined daily by cruel and insidious gossip. The besieged individuals join forces in facing down their altered circumstances, Mr. Enderby caught in the middle by his love for Margaret and his trust in his sister's motives.
Mrs. Rowland's gossip sweeps the story along, the scold's denouement all the more satisfying when it finally occurs. Only after considerable heartbreak and noble stoicism do the wronged characters find a measure of peace, although, as morally superior individuals, they turn their sacrifices into successes.
Amid the chaos, backbiting, broken commitments and the Hope's loss of income and reputation, the plague descends upon Deerbrook, teaching the harshest lesson of all as death strikes randomly in the village with no concern for wealth or position. The stage is set for good to triumph over evil, as in any good Victorian drama.
Deerbrook is an accurate portrayal of nineteenth-century manners, matchmaking and courtship the central theme. Martineau indulges in a mannered mating dance, the philosophical and social discourse common to the era, lengthy conversations on the meaning of life and ritualistic behavior concealing subtle relationships and formal, tentative understandings. This pastoral countryside, for all its pretensions, is a cauldron of discontent and unhappiness until wrongs are set right and love prevails.