Described by Hardy as a tale of "mystery, entanglement, surprise and moral obliquity", his first published novel violated the literary decorum of its day with blackmail, murder, and romance. It relates the story of Cytherea, a maid to the eccentric arch-intriguer Miss Aldclyffe, and the man she loves, Edward Springrove. Upon discovering that Edward is already engaged, Cytherea comes under the influence of Miss Aldclyffe's fascinating, manipulative steward, Manston.
In the long and intricately inwrought chain of circumstance which renders worthy of record some experiences of Cytherea Graye, Edward Springrove, and others, the first event directly influencing the issue was a Christmas visit. In the above–mentioned year, 1835, Ambrose Graye, a young architect who had just begun the practice of his profession in the midland town of Hocbridge, to the north of Christminster, went to London to spend the Christmas holidays with a friend who lived in Bloomsbury. They had gone up to Cambridge in the same year, and, after graduating together, Huntway, the friend, had taken orders. Graye was handsome, frank, and gentle. He had a quality of thought which, exercised on homeliness, was humour; on nature, picturesqueness; on abstractions, poetry. Being, as a rule, broadcast, it was all three.