This is a story set against a late eighteenth and early nineteenth century background, telling how the evils of their time affected the lives of three generations of women. Kitty Kennedy loses her lover before Carolan is born; Katharine, Carolan's child, chooses what must inevitably be a life of danger; but it is Carolan, sensitive and proud, bold and reckless, who must suffer most deeply and who is the central figure around whom events revolve.
Her adventures in the East End, in Newgate Jail and in the foul women's quarters on the prison ship transporting her to Australia are told with terrible clarity and a powerful imagination. The profligacy, perversion, vice and cruelty of that age are forcefully recreated. Having survived the journey and been taken to the house of Materman of Sydney, Carolan finds that her experiences have changed her from an innocent girl to a ruthless woman, determined to establish herself in the Masterman household, and her method of doing so is such as will haunt her for the rest of her life.
The main characters in this unusual novel are not only vivid but convincing. There is the gay and amorous Marcus, vain Kitty, bawdy Margery and sweet Katharine; there is Masterman who, for love of Carolan, forgets he is ambitious and a Puritan; the pious Esther, and Carolan herself--these and many others, living in a world of crime and horror, dirt and luxury, cruelty and indifference are all reaching out hopefully to better times beyond the symbolic Blue Mountains.