The novel begins in the 1790s in the coastal town of Monkshaven. Sylvia Robson lives with her parents on a farm, and is loved by her rather dull Quaker cousin Philip. She, however, meets and falls in love with Charlie Kinraid, a sailor on a whaling vessel, and they become engaged, although few people know of the engagement. When Kinraid goes back to his ship, he is press-ganged—forcibly enlisted in the Royal Navy, a scene witnessed by Philip. Philip does not tell Sylvia of the incident and, believing her lover is dead, Sylvia eventually marries her cousin and they have a daughter. Inevitably, Kinraid returns to claim Sylvia and she discovers that Philip knew he was still alive. Philip leaves her in despair at her rage and rejection, but she refuses to leave with Kinraid.
Philip joins the army, and ends up fighting in the Napoleonic wars where he saves Kinraid's life. Kinraid goes back to Britain, and his wife, who knows nothing of their history together, goes to Sylvia to tell her that her husband is a hero. Sylvia then realizes she is actually in love with Philip, and Kinraid's marriage suggests to her that he was not as faithful to her as she had believed. Philip meanwhile was horribly disfigured by a shipboard explosion, and returns to the small Northumbrian village to try to see his child. He ends up staying with Sylvia's parents' servant's sister and rescues his child when she nearly drowns. In saving his daughter he is fatally injured, but is reconciled with his wife as he dies.