The story, like many of Davies', is notable for very strongly drawn and memorable characters — in this case the defrocked monk Parlabane, a brilliant and sinister sodomite with a thundering voice, voracious appetite; Anglican priest and professor of New Testament Greek Simon Darcourt; Maria Theotoky, a graduate student researching Rabelais; Clement Hollier, a frazzled and absentminded professor; and Urquhart McVarish, a greedy and manipulative counterpoint to Hollier.
The novel's narration alternates between Theotoky's and Darcourt's points of view. Darcourt is attempting to write a history of the university based on Aubrey's Brief Lives.
Much of the story is set in motion by the death of eccentric art patron and collector Francis Cornish. Hollier, McVarish, and Darcourt are the executors of Cornish's complicated will, which includes material that Hollier wants for his studies. The deceased's nephew Arthur Cornish, who stands to inherit the fortune, is also a character.