Following three generations of a British family, the Brangwens, the story focuses on the struggles of growth and fulfillment within 19th Century English society.
Spanning the period of industrialisation, it begins with Tom Brangwen and recounts how he falls in love with a Polish refugee, Lydia. It then moves on to her daughter Anna by a previous marriage, and her relationship with Will, the son of Tom's brother.
Finally, it tells of Ursula, the daughter of Anna and Will, and her struggles with conforming to a increasingly materialistic society. Something at odds with her spiritual and sensual nature.