When Sarah Burton returns to her hometown as headmistress she is full of ambition, determined to create a great school and to inspire her girls to take all they can from life.
But in the aftermath of the First World War, the country is in depression and ideals are hard won.
Lydia Holly, the scholarship girl from the shacks, is the most brilliant student Sarah has ever taught, but when her mother's health fails, her education must be sacrificed - there is nobody else to care for the children. Robert Carne of Maythorpe Hall stands for everything Sarah despises: his family has farmed the South Riding for generations, their position uncontested.
Yet Sarah cannot help being drawn to this proud, haunted - and almost ruined - man. South Riding is a rich, panoramic novel, bringing vividly to life a rural community on the brink of change.