Miss Emily Paget, though granddaughter of an earl, is very much th poor relation. Her widowed father, cast out from the family for making a disgraceful mariage earns a meager living writing adventure stories for boys. The two of them live on sufferance in the gatehouse of the large estate belonging to Emily's aunt and uncle.
Not caring for a life of dependence on charity, Emily conceives a burning desire to earn her own living as a clerk or telephone operator. This disgraceful ambition stirs her aunt to take action: Emily must be brought out, and married off respectably. Emily, however, is equally determinied to be New Woman and never marry at all.
Onto the stage steps Emily's Russian grandmother, and like a fairy godmother transforms her life, whisking her off to Russia. There, in the greater licence accorded to women, Emily finds the freedon and intellectual stimulation she has craved. Unfortunately, she also falls in love for the first time - passionately and hopelessly with a cousin who is another woman's husband.
Seeking an interest to distract her from the pains of love, she becomes involved with the drawing-room revolutionaries, seduced by the dangerous glamour of playing politics and never dreaming how close they are to a real revolution. And when it comes, brutal, bloody and divisive, it tests Emily's courage and character to the full. Her own relations are hunted like animals, and it is left to her to save something from the wreck, to resuce the wife and children of the man she loves and bring them safe out of Russia, not knowing even if he is alive or dead.