William and Emily are the orphaned children of Norman Crowne. Crowne was a poetic genius, but not without scandal. He was involved in a murder, and although not convicted, everyone knows he was guilty. The children are raised by their aunt Catherine Frobisher alongside their cousins, Trevor and Charlotte. Charles Frobisher, Catherine’s late husband, had been a poet himself — equal to Shakespeare in the widow’s mind, if not in anyone else’s. All four children fancy themselves to be writers as well. William and Emily have been left independently wealthy and can do what they please, but Trevor and Charlotte are at the mercy of their mother, who sees in them not the slightest talent. As they grow older, their relationship with their mother becomes more strained.
William and Emily move out. They buy a house together and live like grown-up children, writing for themselves with no real intent of ever actually publishing anything. Trevor leaves as well and, motivated by rebelliousness more than anything else, moves into circles his Little England mother would rather pretend didn’t exist. One of his new friends is Tilli, an actress and something of a gold-digger. Tilli is attracted to Trevor, but her main interest in him came from his tales of Monk’s Hall, his mother’s ancestral home, which he had always expected to inherit some day. That dream seems to be dashed now that its present owner, his uncle Bobbie, has been forced to sell it. William, under pressure from Trevor, buys the old house with the intent of turning it into some sort of ill-thought-out communist collective for struggling artists. Really, though, Trevor just wants to live there.
Tilli tries another attack. She persuades a theatrical producer to stage one of WIlliam’s unpublished plays, starring in it herself. The play is produced and, though well attended, it is roundly panned. Emily is affected more than William — realizing that, no matter what they do, they will always be known as Norman Crowne’s children and will always be made a spectacle of for that reason. To escape from herself, she flees into marriage with a dull village preacher. Alone, William is lost and rather easily falls prey to Tilli. They’re married and take up residence at Monk’s Hall along with Trevor and his friends. Tilli finds life at Monk’s Hall to be a living hell, but her reason for staying is that she’s still attracted to Trevor.
The affair is rather well known, but William turns a blind eye until Sally forces him to act. (I haven’t touched on Sally’s subplot: in short, she’s the mistress of Trevor’s friend Nigel and is attacking Trevor to get revenge on his mother, who continually snubs and belittles her for for what she considers to be an affront to decency.) That night, William goes to confront Tilli and finds her and Trevor together. William chases Trevor out of the house and into the dark countryside. A shot rings out. William is found by the other housemates, quite distracted, babbling about dropping his gun and wanting to stop and search for it. Some time later, they discover Trevor, mortally wounded. He tells his sister that he and William had been chasing a poacher, that he had tripped while holding William’s gun, and that he had accidentally shot himself. He makes sure before he dies that this is the story they must all repeat.