Author: Wilkie Collins
First published: 1862
Time: Mid-nineteenth century
Andrew Vanstone, a Victorian gentleman who lives a quiet life. When he is killed unexpectedly, it turns out that Mrs. Vanstone is his second wife of but a short time and that their two daughters are illegitimate. Because of legal technicalities, his fortune passes to a selfish, bad-tempered brother of Mr. Vanstone who refuses to share the inheritance with the Vanstone daughters.
Mrs. Vanstone, Andrew's second wife, the mother of Norah and Magdalen. She dies of grief shortly after her husband is killed in a railway accident. They had been unable to marry until late in life because Andrew's disreputable first wife was still alive.
Norah Vanstone, a quiet girl. Left poor at her father's death, she supports herself as a governess. A sensitive girl, she has her feelings hurt by her fiancé's inquiries about her. She is persistent and finally accomplishes quietly what her sister cannot accomplish by plotting and flamboyant means: She restores the family fortune.
Magdalen Vanstone, a headstrong, capable girl. Left penniless at her father's death, she carves for herself a stage career. She marries her cousin Noel to regain the fortune lost by her illegitimacy, but her plots fail and she is still seemingly without the fortune. Eventually, her sister finds the documents that restore the girls' inheritance.
Noel Vanstone, Magdalen's cousin and first husband, whom she marries in an attempt to retrieve the family fortune. He is a weak, miserly young man. He discovers his wife's trickery and just before he dies, he tries to will his money to a distant relative.
Captain Kirke, Magdalen's second husband, an understanding, patient man.
Mr. Clare, the Vanstones' misanthropic but scholarly neighbor, Frank's father.
Frank Clare, the Vanstone girls'childhood playmate. He becomes an incompetent young man whom Magdalen finds attractive for a while. A failure at business, he is forced to take a job in China. Eventually, he marries a wealthy widow.
Captain Wragge, an amiable rascal who befriends and helps Magdalen.
Mrs. Wragge, a large, sad woman who, like her husband, befriends Magdalen.
Miss Garth, the Vanstone girls' governess, who helps them when they are left penniless.
Mrs. Le Count, Noel's suspicious housekeeper, who dominates her master.
George Bartram, Noel's designated heir. He loves Norah.
Admiral Bartram, George's uncle.