Gillian is the only child of a very wealthy farmer, so whomever she marries will not only be lucky to have a pretty bride, but will also have the added benefit of inheriting a large fortune. Gillian is nineteen when the novel opens and she is a starry-eyed romantic who wants to flirt with men so that they will fall in love with her. Gillian, in many ways, still acts like a child and she is is selfish, narcissistic and silly towards others in her life. The kind and simple shepherd named Robert who is employed by her father is oftentimes the target of her coquetry. But Gillian keeps telling herself that she can never fall in love with Robert because she doesn’t want a simple farm hand for a husband; she wants excitement, passion and a man who can ride a horse bareback. Webb beautifully foreshadows the suffering that Gillian will have to endure before she can have her happily ever after.
Robert is the only son of Mrs. Makepeace who lost her husband when Robert was a very young boy. Mrs. Makepeace has remarried a man named Jonathan who, despite being so clumsy, is a great husband and stepfather. Mrs. Makepeace knows her son Robert well, so she senses it when Robert begins to fall in love with Gillian. Robert is the main farm hand and does the lion’s share of the work for Gillian’s father; he has grown up with Gillian and as they both mature he sees her in a very different light and begins to develop deep romantic feelings for her. It is sweet that since he cannot express his love to her directly, he composes penillion verses about her and his love for her. He is a gifted poet but he never writes his poetry down or shares it with anyone, especially not Gillian.
When another sheep farmer comes to town and buys the local inn, Robert is very suspicions of this mysterious man from the beginning. Ralph Elmer is not married, or so he says, and lives with his servants Fringal and Rwth. Rwth is mute and Robert treats her very badly. Both Robert and Gillian take pity on Rwth and treat Rwth with kindness and compassion; Gillian’s kind treatment of Rwth, for me, was the beginning of her transformation into a mature and less selfish woman.