The story is set in rural Shropshire shortly after the Napoleonic Wars. It is narrated by the central character, Prue Sarn, whose life is blighted by having a harelip. Only the weaver, Kester Woodseaves, perceives the beauty of her character, but Prue cannot believe herself worthy of him. Her brother Gideon is overridingly ambitious to attain wealth and power, regardless of who suffers while he does so. Gideon is set to wed his sweetheart Jancis, but he incurs the wrath of her father, the cruel and scheming self-proclaimed wizard Beguildy.