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In 1867 Nicola Douglas attends a London lecture given by Miss Maria Rye, the founder of the Female Middle Class Emigration Society, which inspires her to change her life. With no family, but a good education, she boards a ship to Australia with high hopes of a fresh start in a new country as a governess. But Sydney is full of young women with similar hopes and equally poor prospects. When Nicola is at her lowest ebb, a benefactor appears, Mr Belfroy, whose past has made him sympathetic to women struggling to survive. She also meets Frances West, an activist from a privileged background, and her attractive but distant brother, Nathaniel. However hard she tries to resist, Nicola's attraction to Nathaniel West grows. Her achievements at the Governess Home are vital to her. Can she have both?