The first chapter describes Lyme Regis and its Cobb, a harbor quay on which three characters are standing: Charles Smithson, Ernestina Freeman, and Sarah Woodruff. The describing narrator has a distinctive voice, all-knowing yet intimate, with a wide-ranging vocabulary and evidently vast knowledge of political and geographical history. In one sentence the narrator sounds like a Victorian, as he remarks that the male character recently "had severely reduced his dundrearies, which the arbiters of the best English male fashion had declared a shade vulgar--that is, risible to the foreigner--a year or two previously." In the next sentence he sounds modern, as he describes how "the colors of the young lady's clothes would strike us today as distinctly strident." The narrator's double vision and double voice make him as important as the characters in this novel.
Charles is a middle-aged bachelor and amateur paleontologist; Ernestina is his fiancée, who has brought him to spend a few days with her aunt. Out of a chivalric concern for Sarah, Charles advises her to return from the end of the Cobb to a safer position, but she merely stares at him. As he reflects on this curious meeting, the narrator begins to comment on Charles's outlook on life and on the attitudes that were typical of the age in 1867, with occasional comparisons with 1967.
Ernestina is revealed to be a pretty but conventional young woman. Sarah is an outcast who is reputed to be pining for the French lieutenant who has jilted her. Charles is earnest but intelligent enough to be aware of Ernestina's limitations. When he is looking for fossils along the wooded Undercliff, Charles discovers Sarah sleeping, and must apologize when she awakes and sees him observing her. As he returns to Lyme, he inquires about her at a nearby farm, whose owner tells him that the "French Loot'n'nt's Hoer" often walks that way. Sarah's employer, having separately become aware of that fact, forbids her to walk there any more. Sarah spends that night contemplating suicide, and Chapter 12 ends with two questions: "Who is Sarah? Out of what shadows does she come?"
Chapter 13 begins "I do not know," and the narrator proceeds to discuss the difficulty of writing a story when characters behave independently rather than do his bidding. Charles, he complains, did not return to Lyme as the narrator had intended but willfully went down to the Dairy to ask about Sarah. But, the narrator concedes, times have changed, and the traditional novel is out of fashion, according to some. Novels may seem more real if the characters do not behave like marionettes and narrators do not behave like God. So the narrator, in effect, promises to give his characters the free will that people would want a deity to grant them. Likewise, the narrator will candidly admit to the artifice of the narration and will thereby treat his readers as intelligent, independent beings who deserve more than the manipulative illusions of reality provided in a traditional novel.
Subsequent chapters contain representations of domestic life--a quiet evening with Charles and Ernestina, a morning with Charles and his valet, a concert at the Assembly Rooms. During this last, Charles reflects on where his life seems to be leading and on the fact that, as he puts it, he has become "a little obsessed with Sarah…or at any rate with the enigma she presented." He returns to the Undercliff, again finds Sarah there, and is shocked to be told by her that she is not pining for her French lieutenant, that he is married. The next time Charles encounters her in the Undercliff she offers Charles some fossils she has found and tells him that she thinks she may be going mad; she asks him to meet her there once more, when she has more time, so that she can tell him the truth about her situation and obtain his advice.
Charles decides to seek advice himself and visits Dr. Grogan, an elderly bachelor and an admirer of
When Charles returns to his room at the inn, he finds a telegram from his bachelor uncle Robert, summoning him home to the family estate he is in line to inherit. To Charles's surprise, Robert has decided to marry Bella Tomkins, a young widow, whose sons--if she has any--would displace Charles as heir. On Charles's return to Lyme Regis, Ernestina mentions that Sarah was seen returning from their last meeting in the Undercliff, where she had been forbidden to walk, and has been dismissed by Mrs. Poulteney. At his hotel, Charles finds a message from Sarah, urging him to meet her one more time. Charles has Dr. Grogan call off the search for Sarah, who, it was thought, might have killed herself Grogan again warns Charles against Sarah, this time by offering him a document to read about a case of bizarre behavior by a young woman in France who manages to get one of her father's officers unjustly convicted of attempting to rape her. Charles decides to meet Sarah again, despite the possibility that she may be deranged and trying to destroy him.
When he finds her, she confesses that she deliberately allowed herself to be seen and, hence, dismissed. Charles is unable to resist kissing her but is bewildered. His feelings turn to dismay when they are stumbled on by Sam and Mary, his valet and Ernestina's aunt's servant, who have come to the Undercliff for their own privacy. Embarrassed, he swears them to secrecy.
Now even more of two minds about his marriage, Charles decides to go to
Because the train station nearest to Lyme Regis is in
As the story resumes and continues to unfold, Charles visits Sarah at her hotel. He must see her in her room because she has supposedly injured her ankle, though she has purchased the bandage before the "accident" occurred. Charles is overcome by passion and takes her to bed, only to discover that she is a virgin, despite what she had told him about the French lieutenant. She confesses that she has deceived him, says that she cannot explain why and, furthermore, cannot marry him. Stunned by the whole experience, Charles visits a nearby church and meditates on the human condition. He decides that Sarah has been trying to "unblind" him with her stratagems, so that he would recognize that he is free to choose. He writes a letter to Sarah, telling her how much she means to him, and then returns to Lyme to call off his engagement.
Sam does not deliver the letter. Ernestina is distraught when Charles tells her that he is unworthy to be her husband, more so when she realizes that the true reason is another woman. Sam correctly surmises that his master's star will wane as the marriage is called off, so determined to protect his prospect of marriage to Mary, he leaves his position as Charles's valet in hope that Ernestina's aunt and her father will help him.
When Charles returns to
The narrative resumes the description of Charles's search for Sarah. He checks agencies for governesses, patrols areas frequented by prostitutes, and advertises--all without success. He visits the
When Charles arrives at Sarah's house, he finds her surprised to see him and not apologetic about having left him in ignorance of her whereabouts. She gradually is revealed to be living in the house of Dante Gabriel Rossetti and several other artists and models of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. Charles is shocked, partly by the rather notoriously unconventional company she is keeping and partly by her lack of repentance for having deceived him and left him in uncertainty. He accuses her of implanting a dagger in his breast and then twisting it. She decides not to let Charles leave without revealing that she has had a child by him, named Lalage. Chapter 60 ends with the three of them evidently on the threshold of some kind of future together.
Chapter 61 begins with the bearded narrator in front of Sarah's house with a watch, which he sets back fifteen minutes and drives off. The narrative resumes with the same piece of dialogue from Chapter 60, about twisting the knife. In this version of the conversation, Charles sees that she cannot marry without betraying herself, and that he cannot accept her on more independent terms. He leaves without realizing that the child he notices on the way out is his. The narrator ends the novel by noting that Charles has at least begun to have some faith in himself, despite his not feeling that he understands Sarah, and that the reader should not imagine that the last ending is any less plausible than the one before it.