More than a decade has gone by since Esther Cunningham weakened by the consumption that would take her life, left her precious daughter in her mother's care.
Now eighteen Lorna Cunningham is eagerly awaiting the day when she can leave the Newcastle house in which she's know only heartache.
The Arabian ancestry of the father she has never known has meant that she has been nothing more than an unwelcome guest in her grandmother's home, forced to take second place to her spoilt cousin Rose who has wanted for neither love nor material comforts.
Lorna takes comfort from her growing friendship with the bookseller Edwin Randall who shares her love of reading and inspires her with his passion to improve the terrible conditions of the Newcastle slums.
But their relationship is overshadowed by Lorna's infatuation with the handsome and charismatic Maurice Haldane - the man Rose is determined she herself will marry and who has the power to change all their lives forever...