Dinah Driffield has grown up happy and content in the upper middle class of society in Leeds in the north of England. Her family is numerous and loving, her friends many and her year is a satisfactory round of charitable work, social events, and summer visits to nearby Harrowgate. She expects that she will marry within her class and continue her life in much the same pattern. Her opinions of the aristocracy are low. On the evidence of limited association and much superficial evidence, Dinah believes all noblemen to be expensive idlers.
All her preconceptions are challenged, on a summer visit to her grandmother in Harrowgate, by a meeting with Sebastian Delamain, Viscount Holly. Holly is inquisitive, active and unpretentious. Though obviously disconcerted by family life as she understands it, he quickly becomes a favourite of her several brothers and sisters, and engages her affections with remarkable ease and grace.
The summer of 1812 is coloured, for the manufacturers of the north, by the activities of those calling themselves Luddites who are desperately opposed to the new machinery changing the cloth manufacturing industry. The Luddite riots and frame breaking create a tense autumn during which Sebastian tries to convince Dinah that aristocrats, like people of all classes, deserve to be considered on individual merits.
Holly finds nothing difficult or confusing about their growing attachment and is convinced that their love is all they need to create whatever future they wish for themselves. Dinah, torn between her love for the viscount and her loyalty to her class, cannot believe that society's barriers can be easily overcome. Extraordinary events will be required to convince her. Sebastian, with the love of his life and a whole new family at hazard, is willing to undertake any challenge.