Dear Mr Cornford, It is with regret that I begin the task of writing to you about your niece, Emily. Her recent behaviour, which I have outlined to you in previous letters, compels me to request that she be formally removed from the school and returned to your care with immediate effect . . .'
And so Emily Hudson, niece and ward, is dispatched into the care of her distant and cold uncle, to take residence at the family's Newport beach house at the outbreak of the Civil War. She is an orphan, the sole member of her family not claimed by consumption. In that first lonely summer, it is Emily's cousin William - himself an outsider - who is her saviour. Her spirit and vibrancy are at odds with the stilted climate of American society: a woman should be a paragon of virtue, definitely not an aspiring painter with no fortune to speak of. William's friendship offers Emily the chance to escape to London to pursue her dreams, but his patronage soon turns darker and more controlling. And as Emily's health falters, she turns to some rather unsuitable means to find the release she craves . . .