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Written by R A Williams
The eponymous heroine of the novel, Charlotte is in her late twenties at the beginning of the novel. Her back-story is intriguing: her father died at age thirty of what the narrator calls "lung-fever", leaving slender provision for his large family. So, despite her genteel connections Charlotte has little money of her own. Moreover, she was lonely and sad, and fell in love with another lonely, sad, financially strapped young man named Clement Spender who had just been rejected by Charlotte's cousin Delia. A pregnancy resulted, and when Clement left for Italy Charlotte retreated to the Georgia countryside for a year purportedly to recover from the same lung disease that had affected her father. When she is under stress, Charlotte still coughs and occasionally breaks a blood vessel in her lungs, coughing up blood. She abandoned her baby girl, named Clementina, with an African-American family known for taking in foundlings. Later, upon her return to New York, Charlotte opened up a day-school for disadvantaged children including her daughter. In this way, she established a relationship with Tina without revealing her secret. But when Joe Ralston proposes marriage, he requires Tina to stop caring for the foundlings. This sets off the crisis around which the novel revolves.
Twenty-five years old at the start of the novel, Delia has been married to James "Jim" Ralston for five years and is a mother of two. The Ralstons are a very conservative, influential family and Delia has absorbed some, but not all, of their conservatism. She and her husband adore one another and trust each other implicitly.
Delia hears from Charlotte how her daughter Tina needs to be cared for, and adroitly manages it by discreetly sabotaging Charlotte's impending marriage to Joe by revealing that Charlotte's lung sickness has returned. She manipulates Jim into letting her move Charlotte into a cottage the Ralstons aren't using, and to live there with one of her foundlings in order to recover her health. Later, after Jim dies falling from a horse, Delia takes Charlotte and Tina in. She adopts Tina in order to improve her chances of marrying a flighty, handsome, but financially embarrassed bachelor who is wooing her (but not marrying her) much the way Clement treated Charlotte.
Tina is Charlotte's daughter who, born out of wedlock, was dropped off by a mysterious veiled woman who pinned a hundred-dollar bill to her smock. She knows Charlotte as the old maid who used to keep a nursery, and who cared for her as an "aunt". She refers to Delia as her mother, imitating Delia's children. Flighty and irresponsible, she is in love with a very unsuitable young man. People call her Tina Lovell because Charlotte has taken her in, but when Delia adopts her and makes her into her legal heir Tina Ralston finds it easy to get young Lanning Halsey to marry her.
James or "Jim" Ralston
Delia's husband is a doting father who adores his wife and thinks highly of her. He learns from the family doctor the story behind Tina's birth, but keeps the fact to himself in order to set Charlotte and Tina up in a way that allows his cousin Joe to back out of the very unsuitable marriage with Charlotte.
James dies at a young age, in a fall from a horse, leaving Delia a widow at twenty-eight.
James's second cousin resembles him physically but is less open-minded. He forbids Charlotte to continue working with the orphans for fear that she might pick up a disease from one of the children and bring it home. Delia plays on this fear of contagion by mentioning that Charlotte's lung problems have returned and that Charlotte wants to call off the wedding.
Clement is Tina's father but may not know it. He was once in love with Delia, who was fond of him but did not accept his marriage proposal because he did not earn a respectable living. He made a living as an artist in Italy instead of as a lawyer in New York, and his income was not sufficient to support Delia and any possible children at the standard of living she expected. Saddened by Delia's rejection, he took up with Charlotte who was also poor, sad, and lonely. He courted Charlotte, but would not marry her. The result was, essentially, a fling. Charlotte became pregnant and Clement sailed off to Italy. He returns briefly prior to Charlotte's wedding.
Lanning is a young bachelor who is handsome but not punctual, and who cannot decide on a profession. This is a problem because he is not independently wealthy and relies on an allowance from his father. He can therefore not afford to marry a poor woman. In this respect, he reminds Charlotte of Clement Spender, especially when he continues to date Tina without marrying her. When Delia Ralston adopts Tina and makes Tina her heir, or at least the heir to the money she brought into her marriage, Tina becomes wealthy enough to marry and the wedding occurs just three months later.
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