Miss Reeve noted in the 1778 preface that
"This Story is the literary offspring of The Castle of Otranto, written upon the same plan, with a design to unite the most attractive and interesting circumstances of the ancient Romance and modern Novel, at the same time it assumes a character and manner of its own, that differs from both; it is distinguished by the appellation of a Gothic Story, being a picture of Gothic times and manners."
Originally Miss Reeve presented the story, as Walpole had done before her, as an old manuscript she had merely discovered and transcribed. Under Mrs Bridgen's auspices this fiction was removed from the preface, but more subtle textual references to its authenticity were allowed to remain. These included the claim that the four-year interval was a lacuna in the manuscript, where the original author was supposed to have left off and a "more modern hand" continued the manuscript; there are many subsequent breaches in the narrative where the original was supposed to have been defaced by damp.
The story follows the adventures of Sir Philip Harclay, who returns to medieval England to find that Arthur Lord Lovel, the friend of his youth, is dead. His cousin Walter Lord Lovel had succeeded to the estate, and sold the family castle to the baron, Fitz-Owen. Among the baron's household were his two sons and daughter Emma, several young gentlemen relations being educated with the sons, and Edmund Twyford, the son of a peasant, who had been brought to live with them. When Sir Philip saw him, he took an immediate liking to him, being struck by his resemblance to his lost friend. The Knight proposing to take him into his own family, being childless, Edmund preferred to remain with the baron, receiving however an assurance that if ever he was in need of it, Sir Philip would renew his offer.
The narrative then oversteps the interval of four years. By his manifestly superior nature and qualities Edmund had attracted the enmity of his benefactor's nephews, and the coldness of Sir Robert, the eldest son. William, his younger brother, is his staunch friend however, and Edmund is in love with the Lady Emma.
Miss Reeve declared in her preface her opinion that such tales should be kept within the bounds of reality, contrasting it unfavourably with Otranto. Walpole remarked in response that the Old Baron was