South Riding charts the story of Sarah Burton's homecoming to Yorkshire in 1934 after 20 years teaching in London and the Empire. After a fiery interview with a conservative interview panel, outspoken Sarah takes up her first headmistress-ship at Kiplington High School For Girls, determined to demonstrate to her new pupils that the future is theirs for the taking.
Change is on her agenda straight away - of the curriculum, of teaching methods, of the rundown buildings. Her hurry to transform the South Riding brings her into immediate conflict with landowner Robert Carne, a man tragically trapped in his past, and wins her the friendship of Joe Astell, a reforming socialist councillor bent on improving the lives of the Yorkshire poor by means of a spanking new housing estate to replace the rural slum known as The Shacks.
As term begins, Shacks girl Lydia Holly arrives at the High School, with talent to burn and domestic circumstances that make it almost impossible for her to realise her dreams. Meanwhile, Sarah is brought closer to Carne through his highly-strung and delicate daughter, Midge.