Part I (Vita Nuova) introduces Adrian Bassett, son of the self-made Sir Daniel Bassett, as an undergraduate at Oxford. Over cigars and wine, he and his upper-crust friends - Airedale, Grimsby, D'Arcy and Lulworth - pontificate into the small hours about the materialism of the age, likening its general spirit to the "Great Refusal" (the rich young man in the Gospel of Mark who goes away disappointed when told by Jesus that to inherit eternal life he has to give up his wealth).
The next day finds two young women, the undergraduate Blanche and her friend Isobel, on a walk in the country near Oxford; they encounter Adrian ("a sleeping faun" who has dozed off over a book after his late night). After brief acquaintance when he wakes, they discuss him - he is known to be faultess, even to the point of being considered a prig by some - and are evidently both interested.
It is Commemoration Week, and Oxford is full of visiting relatives. Adrian has a brief twinge of jealousy when he sees Isobel with Airedale, but she turns out to be Lady Isobel Mostyn, Airedale's cousin and friend. Over a week of partying, he becomes increasingly attracted to her. He confides in Airedale, who tells him she has lots of admirers, but is not engaged.
At "Bassett Towers", Sir Daniel is entertaining guests awaiting Adrian's return from Oxford, but gets news that Adrian has fallen ill with typhoid, evidently caught in the slums of London on philanthropic work at the university "settlement". Adrian slowly recovers, cheered by a spray of flowers sent by an "I.M". Isobel and Blanche (Ingram) are meanwhile discussing him, sounding out each other's feelings. Blanche reveals (she also works at an East End settlement project) that Adrian became ill after sitting in the rain despairing of ever improving the human condition.
Adrian convalesces on a golfing visit to St Andrews, where matchmaking proceeds. On a romantic night-time excursion, Adrian expresses to Blanche his wish to win a certain woman - then dashes her hopes by revealing it to be Isobel. His social conscience is disturbed by the poverty and drunkenness he sees in the town. After a visit to his friend Lulworth, whose family's frugal "rural squire" lifestyle impresses him, he returns to Oxford, writing a McGonagallesque Valentine poem to Isobel.
Part II (Sturm und Drang Periode) continues two years later, when Adrian is working as a clerk for Stevenson's, Sir Daniel's retail chain. Isobel is still single, and her eventual marriage to Adrian looks a done deal, with the approval of Sir Daniel and her father, Lord Kilmeny. However, relations between Sir Daniel and Adrian become strained when Adrian describes as "cheating" the sharp business dealings that made his father's fortune. The incident passes, but Adrian keeps away from the house for a while. Blanche and Isobel have further conversation, during which Blanche finds herself shocked at the apparent absence of feeling Isobel has for Adrian.
Adrian considers his options as the marriage date approaches. He speaks to his friends Grimsby, who has rejected an inheritance obtained from corrupt dealings (a rubber plantation whose owners committed atrocities), and D'Arcy, who married a governess and is living in relative poverty. Heartened that they are coping, he goes to visit his father. Sir Daniel is expecting merely that Adrian has come up to own up about overspending, and is ready to offer him a partnership in Stevenson's if he gets his act together. Adrian, however, tells his father that he considers the business exploitative to its workers, and can have no more to do with it. No compromise is possible: enraged, Sir Daniel disinherits Adrian.
Adrian catches Isobel at a polo match and tells her what has happened, saying that their wedding must be postponed. She says that it's off, forever, because she can't be a poor man's wife. Friends and relatives beg Adrian to seek a reconciliation with his father, but he won't be swayed. Inspired that he has made the decision the rich young man in the Gospel of Mark failed to make, he prepares for a life of poverty.
Part III (Lehr und Wanderjahre) starts with the sale of Adrian's house and possessions, after which he disappears from public life. Sir Daniel hopes that the split will starve him into returning, like the Prodigal Son, but this fails to happen. But a year later, a young bearded workman wistfully follows the wedding procession at Westminster Abbey, where Lady Isobel Mostyn is married to the older Marquis of Aynesworth. She catches sight of the workman, and is visibly shocked (obviously it's Adrian). After the reception, it becomes clear the marriage is not off to a good start; Aynesworth shows himself to be pompous and intolerant; and despite both having agreed that the arrangement is one of convenience rather than passion, Aynesworth is clearly jealous at Isobel still having feelings about Adrian.
Meanwhile it is revealed that Adrian has been working as a horsedrawn van driver in London. He has been spotted as being of his class, however, and he is dismissed for writing pseudonymous news stories critical of the company's management. At his lodgings he is tracked down by Airedale, who reproaches him for his obstinacy in sticking to this course. He suggests that Adrian come along to a meeting with Grimsby and D'Arcy, as they're looking for an editor for a weekly magazine they're founding. Adrian is interested, but says he prefers not to get directly involved.
Some months later, we're introduced to "The Brotherhood", a group of upper working-class intellectuals formed to promote ethical business dealings. Airedale, after explaining its Christian-Socialist manifesto, reveals who has been bankrolling its magazine, The Reflector: Adrian. His arrival causes a stir; he's clean-shaven and well-dressed, having a new job as private secretary to an eminent politician. Some members think this disqualifies him from membership, but he argues successfully that The Brotherhood has no rules about appearance or profession, and that all his income comes from his own work.
Isobel, meanwhile, is settling into her life as the Marchioness of Aynesworth, but she is tormented by thoughts of what might have been with Adrian, anxieties that come to a head when she unexpectedly runs into him in a semi-darkened room at her house and Lord Aynesworth sees her collapse into Adrian's arms. It turns out that he's there on legitimate business - to bring an urgent despatch from his employer - but the shock is so great that later she's found semi-conscious after injecting morphine.
Isobel recovers, confiding in Blanche, who is also in regular contact with Adrian through a mutual interest in philanthropic work. Isobel finds contentment in a life separate from her husband. The Brotherhood (now formally called The Brotherhood of the Golden Rule) grows in influence, and Adrian develops a reputation as a writer and speaker. He calls on his father, and the two are reconciled sufficiently to talk amicably, agreeing to differ.
Finally the Brotherhood puts into action plans to establish a utopian colony, Brothersland, in East Africa. Blanche intends to say behind, but Adrian asks her to marry him; she accepts, and they marry before sailing for Africa. The book ends with a statement of the founding principles of Brothersland.
It's all rather an odd mix: a work of social polemic cross-bred with MG's staple story of romance among the monied classes (and a very conventional romance at that: the hero loses the 'alpha' female - a beautiful aristocrat with the personality of a tennis ball - and wins the 'beta' female - the slightly less attractive but intelligent and capable Mary Sue). Nor was it easy reading: I've omitted much of the vast cast of minor characters, which are well-drawn but often leave the reader needing to correlate details from several chapters later to understand who they are. Also, MG's mature style (she was around 60 at the time of writing) combines her long-standing tendency to purple prose with a consciously literary style, leading to vastly over-written passages such as this attempt to convey Oxford undergraduate banter ...
"No, no. Peerages are the meed of mighty brewers. The Don of aftertimes will derive the term from beermakers, according to Bunsen's law, by virtue of which the 'b' of beerage assumes the later form of peerage. Others, from the known tendency of the beverage—mark the gradual evolution of the 'v'—to steal men's wits, may derive peer from an A.S. root, signifying thief"
... or this description of a golf shot:
The hand of many a gallant photographer quivered in the anguish of uncovering his camera at the right moment, and the breast of many heaved with fury as the head or shoulder of some heedless spectator wantonly invaded his foreground. The pulses of the intent crowd throbbed with often baffled expectation, as the eye of the great golfer measured the ground between the ball and the hole again and again, and he grasped his instrument with fierce and fell energy in both hands, first one way, then another, now another, now gently and deftly patting the turf immediately behind the ball, now, with glaring eye and bristling moustache, whirling the iron-shod club with an acrobatic twist of his whole body above his head and far behind him, with a force and determination so terrible as to strike cold fear into the hearts of the uninitiated bystanders, hitherto accustomed to hold such actions characteristic of cannibal islanders, ogres, and battle-axe men in armour; then, as if in the face of a duty beyond the power of mere humanity, sadly and slowly relaxing from this furious menace to a tamer and more peaceable attitude, till, from the rank of boomerang, battle-axe, or two-handed sword, the driving-iron sank to the level of a mere pacific umbrella, spade, or walking-stick, and the turf behind the ball was again gently, almost caressingly, patted by it. Then at last, in pity to bright eyes on the point of being suffused with tears of repressed emotion and manly breasts ready to burst with it, the great golfer suddenly and without the slightest warning, with a quick and complicated pirouette that threw him upon his other leg, whirled his club so fiercely and swiftly round that he seemed to smite his own shoulder with it, and in the rebound caught the ball clean in the centre with a quick crack that sent it singing in a fine arch to the long-envisaged hole. The crowd breathed; the last sunray vanished; and the great golfer sighed from the depths of a vast, immeasurable beatitude. He had not lived in vain.
As to the social polemic, it's clearly well-intentioned, and many of MG's ideas about the ethics of wealth and labour aren't dissimilar to those of late-Victorian Christian socialists. or the Arts and Crafts Movement (I know MG was a fan of Ruskin). However, the rules of Brothersland are as much feudal as socialist, and the ideals of the Brotherhood are inextricably mixed with MG's essentially reactionary pet peeves (as expressed in "A Plea for the Silence of the Novelist") about such things as advertising, mechanisation, bad novels, sex in fiction, and the decline of religion. Even as students, MG's characters are spouting middle-aged grouches about everything going to the dogs:
"The boy," Grimsby replied, "means that multitudinous novels have dissolved the nation's intellect in floods of verbose inanity." The boy explained on pressure that striving after effect and exaggerated horror of the obvious had reduced literature, or at least that outward body of it called style, to a mere play with words, an ingenious juggle with phrases, in which images as remote as possible from the meaning were twisted and forced to express it in clipped and freakish phraseology. "This verbal legerdemain has been carried to such a pitch that the best artists in this kind find it simpler to dispense with meaning altogether," he said.
"That is the canker at the core, that is the corrosive poison at the springs of national life: the spirit of commercial greed, the lust of luxury, the frenzied passion to be richer and ever richer, to make sudden fabulous fortunes, to outstrip every competitor in the base bestial game," he shouted. "Our pleasures are material; intellect, imagination, fancy, love of beauty come never into our pastimes; they are crushed out by the brute weight of wealth. Literature is dead, art degraded to mechanism. A spice of intellect in drama, a glimmer of thought in fiction, is fatal. Poetry is a lost art, conversation is extinct, manners are gone, courtesy dwindled to an irreducible minimum. We in England are merging into sheer plutocracy, the States are a despotism of trusts, rent by chronic war between labor and capital. France is a tyranny of intolerant fanaticism at open war with Christianity, Germany a vast barrack under martial law. European fiction and drama are concerned only with sensual enjoyment, sexual irregularities, and squalid slum tragedy."
It gets tiresome.