The novel, set largely in the late 1850s, begins with the early life of the twin protagonists, Philip Randal and Jessie Meade, children of Matthew and Martha Meade, of Stillbrooke Mill on the outskirts of the town of Cleeve. Jessie is Matthew’s natural daughter, Philip her older foster-brother (fostered from the workhouse, he has a different surname on the stipulation of his late mother).
The Meades are visited by a local aristocrat, Sir Arthur Medway, who believes he has a family connection with Philip and wants to adopt him. Whatever the connection, the Medways dread litigating about it for some reason, and Matthew leaves the decision up to Philip. Philip goes to stay at Marwell Court, finding Sir Arthur, Lady Gertrude and their son Claude congenial company - but ultimately he decides to stick with the family he knows.
Philip gets into his late teens and becomes something of a misfit in Cleeve, with a talent for getting into fights with employers. After one drunken episode, he enlists in the army, which turns out to be the making of him. He distinguishes himself in the Crimea, and returns as an officer. At a regimental ball he meets Claude, who has equally distinguished himself as a survivor of the charge of the Light Brigade, and briefly dances with a young woman called Ada Maynard, before having to rush home because of news that his mother is dying. Not only does his mother die, but also his father takes ill and dies before being able to tell Philip the promised truth about his origins. Philip is left as the guardian of Jessie, and enjoined by the dying Matthew to marry her when she is of age. Philip is, however, being sent to India with his regiment, so he leaves Jessie as a parlour-boarder at a small private school, “Miss Blushford’s”.
While Philip is away, Jessie acquires a largely self-taught education, becoming a passable artist, and is befriended by Clara Lonsdale, an evidently rich lady with connections to the Medways and Marwell Court. They spend time there together, and Jessie becomes a companion to the invalid Ethel Medway. In the process, Jessie is introduced to Claude Medway. Despite her effective engagement to Philip, Jessie is attracted by Claude’s charm and erudition, and perturbed on finding that he is rumoured to be engaged to Miss Lonsdale.
Meanwhile, Philip is in battle involved in Sir James Outram’s first attempt of the relief of Lucknow during the Indian Rebellion. Wounded, he is captured, but escapes in the general confusion and finds refuge with the sympathetic Gossamjee Bhose. While convalescing, he fondly recalls Jessie, but is surprised to find Ada Maynard is also hiding at Bhose’s house. Fearing betrayal, they escape disguised as Indians and make their way through the rebel lines to the still-besieged British enclave at Lucknow.
Back in England, Jessie is getting restless, discussing with relatives thoughts of a career. Her mutual attraction with Claude is beginning to draw attention; Clara Lonsdale warns her off, and Jessie’s friends and relatives begin to ostracise her socially. Claude, however, begins to pursue her, giving her a gift of a pearl necklace, despite the reality that he has brought his family into doubt and his father tells him that he has no choice but to marry the rich Clara. Nevertheless, Jessie and Claude continue to meet in the woods, and he attempts to wear down her resistance by arguing the fakeness of conventional marriage and the weirdness of her betrothal to her foster-brother, evidently hoping to install her as a mistress on the Continent under some quasi-marital arrangement. Clara Lonsdale overhears their conversation, and swears she will break up their relationship.
Back in India, Ada Maynard and Philip are reflecting on their adventure. Ada, against the wishes of her mother, is corresponding with Philip; he also is receiving, with less than enthusiasm, letters from Jessie. After the final relief of Lucknow, he is convalescing and receives the effects of his late parents, which contain a clue to his origins: diary notes of the unfortunate marriage of his late mother, Mary Randal. He and Ada grow closer, her parents now considering him a suitable match in the light of his prestigious military career. However, a letter arrives from England telling him of the danger to Jessie’s reputation. Reminded of his neglected obligation as a guardian and fiance, he is forced to break with Ada and return to England.
Philip arrives in England to bad news: Jessie has disappeared. The general fear is that she has committed suicide, as her handkerchief was found by the river bank. But Philip suspects she has eloped, since there is no sign of her cherished paintbox. On enquiry, an elderly boatwoman tells him that she rowed Jessie down the Lynn to the nearby seaport to make a connection with the London train. Jessie, it seems, ran away after her reputation had been compromised.
Paul then goes to London to visit Claude Medway, who now lives in reduced circumstances (Miss Lonsdale got tired of waiting, and married someone else). Claude also has no knowledge of Jessie’s whereabouts, though Paul doesn’t believe him. Shadowing Claude, he finds the latter has a disreputable acquaintance, an opium addict called Mr Ashwin who is clearly somehow involved in the family’s affairs. Confronting Claude, Paul finds the truth about his roots: "Ashwin" is his father Algernon Medway, Sir Arthur Medway’s criminal and disinherited brother. United by this unpleasant confidence, Paul and Claude together pursue a clue to Jessie’s whereabouts in London; Ashwin has one of her paintings, bought from an art shop on the Strand. After months, Claude finds her, starving, on Westminster Bridge.
As Jessie recovers at the home of Canon Maynard (another relative of the Medways), Sir Arthur Medway arrives to explain Philip’s family history in full. A will has been found bequeathing the Medway estate to Philip, displacing Sir Arthur. Philip destroys it, saying he will make his own way in life; Ashwin a.k.a. Algernon goes demented and dies. Claude, no longer obligated to Miss Lonsdale, marries Jessie and takes her on a Mediterranean tour as she convalesces, but her health has been too damaged by starvation, and she too dies. Paul and Claude, linked by having loved the same woman and each having wronged her, become lifelong friends.
Paul and Ada briefly meet; his recent bereavement and, in his view, his dishonourable behaviour in getting up her hopes without telling her of Jessie, prevent any pursuit of any relationship at that time. However, years later, the finale of the book finds a highly-decorated general, his wife Ada and their two children looking out at Stillbrooke Mill as their train crosses the railway bridge after leaving Cleeve station. They depart into the future, and the mill and its stream remain as a timeless presence.
Although the relationship predicaments of In the Heart of the Storm hinge on codes of social, premarital and dynastic conduct that are archaic, even silly at times (and were increasingly so even at the time of writing), I did enjoy the novel. It’s psychologically accurate; Paul and Jessie’s lukewarm attachment is understandable for those brought up as siblings, and in both cases their attraction to other more exotic partners equally understandable (Jessie to the higher-class Claude, and Philip to the woman with whom he shared a dangerous adventure). Jessie and Claude, despite their social differences, share the characteristic of upbringings where they never had to make a complex decision, and both consequently decide badly.
The novel is also highly enlightening about the Indian Rebellion. Maxwell Gray was only 11 when it happened, so was writing with historical hindsight. She is not especially jingoistic about it, and writes scathingly about the vindictiveness of the British character at times of national outrage. Frankly, the novel enlightened me on at least one point of historical fact; although I knew of the East India Company, I don’t recall it being sufficiently stressed in school history, or even mentioned, that prior to the Indian Rebellion, India was under the historically unique (and appalling) situation of being ruled by that company, set up solely to extract its wealth and resources. The installation of direct Crown rule - the Raj - replaced this in 1858.
In the Heart of the Storm isn’t terribly specific about its English location. However, MG being a highly autobiographical novelist, “Cleeve” is not inconsistent with Newport, Isle of Wight. The rural characters speak in Isle of Wight dialect, and the course of the River Lynn, on which Stillbrooke Mill is sited ...
He thought of the origin of the Lynn - a little pond a few miles hence of diamond-clear water ... arose the Lynn, a deep trench, flowing swiftly through lush pasture .... broadening in musical remonstrance over the rough pebbles of a highway .. narrowing again through meadows, turning mills, prattling through a village, and then flowing through a chain of willow-edged mill-ponds ... thence reaching the wharves and the quay, where another stream joined it .... A few miles brought the doubled stream to the sea ...
.... matches the course of the Lukely, a.k.a. Carisbrook Stream, that runs through Carisbrooke and joins the River Medina at Newport.
The novel contains an interesting reference to rustic characters watching a comet: perhaps Donati’s Comet in 1858 or one of several in 1857. I’ll check this out further; apart from the chronological interest, a quick skim of sources suggests 1857-1858 to have been a time of comet hysteria, when comet appearances at a time of world unrest triggered apocalyptic fears.