The book starts with Emma, now an old lady, flying to New York with her personal assistant and favourite grandchild, Paula. Emma contemplates the empire she has created. She has trained Paula to be her successor, both as the head of Harte Stores and as representative of her mother, Daisy Amory, at Sitex.
On their arrival in New York, Emma's secretary, Gaye, tells her that she heard Emma's sons discussing a plan to force her to retire and break up her empire so the pieces can be sold. Devastated initially, Emma isn't surprised but changes her will, choosing to leave her business interests to her grandchildren instead.
The story then goes back to when Emma was a teenager and working as a servant at Fairley Hall in rural Yorkshire. Her father, Jack, and two brothers, Winston and Frank, also work for the Fairley family. Jack and Frank work at the mill and Winston works at the brickyard. After the death of his mother, Winston joins the navy as he had wanted to since he was a child. As parlourmaid, Emma sees a lot of the Fairley family and becomes friends with the younger son, Edwin. They bond over the death of their mothers. Emma also meets Blackie O'Neill, a wandering Irish navvy who has been hired to do some work at Fairley Hall, and they become fast friends. One day, Emma and Edwin realise they feel more for each other than friendship. Their friendship becomes intimate and Emma gets pregnant. Edwin, horrified at this news, does not offer to marry her so she runs away to Leeds. Wanting to protect herself and her child from gossip, Emma tells her landlady and new friends that she is married to Winston, a sailor currently away at sea.
While looking for work, she meets Abraham Kallinski and rescues him from an attack by local youths. After she gets rid of them, she sees Abraham is not well and walks him home. He introduces her to his wife, Janessa and sons, David and Victor. Janessa, out of gratitude, invites Emma to stay for dinner. When Emma tells them she is looking for work, Abraham immediately offers her a job at his clothing workshop. He and David are pleased with Emma's work and she becomes good friends with them.
As the birth of her baby approaches, Blackie arranges for her to meet his friend Laura Spencer in the village of Armley. Laura needs someone to share household expenses and Emma needs someone to look after her so it seemed ideal. They become good friends, Emma moves in and Laura gets her a job at Thompson's Mill. In March, Emma has a daughter and names her Edwina. Needing to work to support them, Emma's cousin, Freda, takes Edwina. After a year of working two jobs, Emma makes enough money to rent a shop in Armley. This shop is a success and Emma's business expands to two shops, then three. Not expecting to see the Fairleys, she is horrified when Gerald visits. He found her after seeing she worked at Thompson's Mill, now owned by his father. He tells her Edwin will soon be engaged and demands she tell him where the child is. Emma refuses to admit that there is a child, and after a violent confrontation, realizes she needs someone to protect her. Worried Gerald will return, she marries her landlord, Joe Lowther. They became friends when he taught her how to do her own accounts. Soon after their marriage, he and Emma have a son, Christopher, nicknamed Kit.
Emma's business continues to expand with Emma going into business with the Kallinskis. Unfortunately her private life doesn't run as smoothly. Joe is killed in the battle of the Somme and Laura, now married to Blackie, dies giving birth to a son, Bryan. Emma raises Bryan until Blackie returns from the war.
In early 1918, Emma meets Paul McGill. They fall in love and while their time together is short it is a very intense affair. Paul is in the Australian army and returns to France after recovering from a leg injury. After the war, he goes home and despite promising to write, never does. Emma, hurt and disappointed, especially when she finds out he and his wife have a son, turns to an acquaintance for consolation and marries again. She and her new husband have twins, Robin and Elizabeth, but the marriage is unhappy (her husband, Arthur Ainsley, is possibly homosexual and certainly has a drinking problem) and ends when Paul returns. Paul has kept in touch with Emma's brother Frank who informs him that Emma's marriage is unhappy. At Paul's request, Frank arranges a meeting between Emma and Paul. Emma is initially angry but calms down when Paul explains why he never wrote to her. They start dating again and she divorces her husband when she finds out she is pregnant with Paul's child. Emma has a daughter that they name Daisy after his mother.
In February 1939, seeing war on the horizon, Paul goes to Australia to get his affairs in order, as he anticipates that once war starts travel will be difficult if not impossible. While there, he is seriously injured in a car crash and almost dies. He survives but disfigured, and is told that he will be dead within a year. He redraws his will, leaving almost everything to Emma and Daisy, and commits suicide. Emma is devastated but eventually recovers enough to look after her family and business empires.
Emma's life goes on. Her children marry and have children of their own: Edwina marries Lord Jeremy Standish and has a son Anthony; Kit has a daughter Sarah; Robin has a son Jonathan; Elizabeth marries repeatedly resulting in son Alexander and daughters Emily and twins Amanda and Francesca; Daisy marries David Amory and has two children, Philip and Paula.
Back in 1968, Emma invites her family to her house in Yorkshire for the weekend. They come, curious to see how she is after recovering from pneumonia, and she tells them that she has discovered their treachery and outmaneuvered them by changing her will. Her older children are furious but each accepts a one million pound trust that Emma offers as a bribe not to cause trouble. Her grandchildren are pleased and all promise to run their section well. Emma also gives her blessing to Paula becoming involved with Jim Fairley. He is Edwin's grandson and she tells him Edwina is his aunt but he had guessed, seeing her resemblance to his great-grandmother, Adele. Jim also has a surprise for Emma, giving her a stone she and Edwin found, revealing the woman painted on it, was her mother, Elizabeth. He tells her about the history of brief but tragic relationships between Fairley men and Harte women and tells her that on his deathbed, Edwin asked Jim to beg Emma to allow Paula and Jim the happiness they were denied. He also asked for her forgiveness as Jim revealed Edwin had never recovered from the guilt he suffered for abandoning her and their child. Emma was happy to forgive Edwin and give her blessing to Jim and Paula's marriage.
Read more about this topic: A Woman Of Substance
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