Trollope’s longest and most powerful novel was filmed in four compelling episodes, without compromising the main storyline or subplots. The plot is revealed below.
London, in the 1870’s. Infamous financier, Augustus Melmotte, arrives in town. As he sets up home in a grand new house at Grosvenor Square, rumors of his financial wizardry and his eligible heiress daughter, Marie, spread like wild fire. Concerns that Melmotte may also be an accomplished swindler are soon forgotten as London’s impoverished establishment greedily anticipates a change in fortunes. Having gambled away his family’s money, profligate young Baronet, Sir Felix Carbury, decides that he’ll have a try for the Melmotte daughter. Lady Carbury, delighted by her son’s resourcefulness, turns her attention to her daughter, Hetta. Lady Carbury has always planned that Hetta should marry her cousin, Roger Carbury, squire of the modest family estate in Suffolk. But Hetta falls passionately in love with Roger’s protégé, Paul Montague, a handsome, well-traveled engineer who has come into her life like a breath of fresh air. Paul excitedly tells Roger about his love for Hetta. Roger is devastated but clings to the hope of winning Hetta for himself, despite her gentle insistence that she will never marry him. And the two old friends find themselves rivals.
Paul and his livewire American business partner, Hamilton K. Fisker, approach Melmotte with an exciting new project. They plan to build a railway stretching from Salt Lake City to Vera Cruz. Melmotte agrees to become Chairman of the Railway Company in London, and in so doing attracts hungry investors.
Marie is dazzled by Felix’s lovemaking and encourages him to ask her father for her hand. But Melmotte has now launched himself in to high society and has his sights set on a better match for his daughter than a penniless Baronet. Felix takes time off to pursue an attractive country girl, Ruby Ruggles. Meanwhile, out of the blue, a formidable and mysterious American beauty, Mrs. Hurtle, arrives in London looking for Paul. Mrs. Hurtle has returned to London to keep Paul to the promise of marriage that he made to her two years ago in San Francisco. Paul tries to explain that his feelings have changed, but the beguiling and sexually manipulative Mrs. Hurtle warns him that it is up to her to release him from the engagement. The shares of the Railway Company are flourishing, and Melmotte starts to borrow money against them to finance new projects. At the meeting of the board of directors for the Railway Company, Paul asks when work will start in Mexico but is brushed off by Melmotte and his cronies. Melmotte’s adviser, Croll, warns that Paul could be dangerous but is ignored. Back in the country, Ruby Ruggles rejects her beau, John Crumb, and incurs the wrath of her grandfather. Bruised and upset, Ruby heads for London in pursuit of Felix. She takes refuge with her aunt, Mrs. Pipkin, at whose house Mrs. Hurtle also happens to be lodging.