Although Kirsteen is the heroine and main character of the book, attention is given to her 3 sisters who grew up in the same household under the same parents. Marg'ret, the servant woman, is the glue that holds the household together. Kirsteen is called the second daughter, but actually as the story develops, one realizes that she is the 3rd, not counting the firstborn who was a daughter who died in infancy. The mother of the story is a mild, weak, ineffective woman from the south, who evidently found herself to be "in over her head" early on in the marriage to her dominating, opinionated, even brutal husband who was a former slave-trader in the West Indies. She found escape in perpetual invalidism, turning the household over to Marg'ret, the maid who accompanied her to Scotland. This Scottish Laird, Douglas, was dominated by the obsession to regroup his family's honor and possessions against the now ruling Campbell clan. This theme runs through the book.
The novel exposes the horrible cost of Imperial greed: the psychological and moral damage of the ex-slave owner Douglas is a minor, but very disturbing part of the novel. The impoverished Scottish countryside, the need to emigrate and exploit other races to gain wealth (India, Australia, and of course the West Indies), and the high social cost of shipping a huge portion of the male population to other parts of the globe are all minor themes as well. But the bulk of the novel is on the role of poor women of the gentry and their plight. The novel contrasts four very different sisters and their different solutions to the problem caused by their social situation.