Anne Lister is a young unmarried woman living in 19th century Yorkshire, at Shibden Hall, with her aunt and uncle. The one thing she wants from life is to have someone to love and to share her life with. The person she has in mind is Mariana Belcombe, with whom she has been conducting a secret romantic and sexual relationship. The relationship breaks apart when Mariana marries a rich widower named Charles Lawton. Depressed, Anne devotes her time to studying. A year after Mariana’s wedding, Anne begins to think about finding another lover. She meets a young woman in church named Miss Browne, and they become close friends.
Mariana asks Anne to meet her in a hotel in Manchester. There, the two women talk and Mariana tells Anne that she has missed her, and that one day, when her husband has died, they might live together as widow and companion. She says that her husband is not healthy, and will not have long to live. Anne agrees and they buy wedding rings, to wear around their necks until they can live together. Returning to Shibden, Anne ignores the attention of Miss Browne. A local industrialist named Christopher Rawson proposes marriage to Anne. She turns him down and says that she could only marry for love. He tells her that people talk about her and call her ‘Gentleman Jack.’ Later, Anne tells her aunt and uncle that she does not want a husband, that she wants to be independent and intends one day to live with a female companion. Mariana visits her on her birthday and they continue their sexual relationship.
Anne attends a party with her acquaintances, including Rawson and the Lawtons. Mariana sees Anne wearing her wedding ring clearly on show and is unhappy with Anne drawing attention to herself. Anne complains that Charles Lawton is not as unhealthy as Mariana had led her to believe. Rawson sees the two women talking together and has a conversation of his own with Lawton. When Mariana returns to her husband’s side, he looks dazed and asks her how Anne loves her. After the party, Mariana writes to Anne and tells her that her husband is suspicious. She tells Anne not to write to her anymore.
Anne’s uncle dies and she inherits his wealth. She writes to Mariana, asking her to come to live with her at once. Mariana replies that she will be travelling nearby in a month’s time and that they will discuss what to do then. When the time comes, Anne meets Mariana’s coach coming along the road and excitedly gets in. Mariana is angry at her drawing attention to herself. She tells Anne that she would rather die than have people know about their relationship. She says that they could be happy together, but would have to live apart. Anne tells her that she wants to spend her life with someone, and leaves.
When Rawson offers to buy some land from Anne to sink a mine, she declines and says that she will mine it herself. She forms a business alliance with Ann Walker, an unmarried acquaintance who has recently inherited her own fortune. They become close friends. Soon the two women are intimidated and harassed by Rawson, now their business rival. For protection, Ann Walker goes to stay at Shibden with Anne. Her aunt comes to tell her niece that people are spreading shocking rumours about the two women. She asks Ann to return home before she ruins her family’s name and warns her that she may ruin her chance of finding a husband. Ann tells her that she does not want a husband. When her aunt leaves, she tells Anne that she wants to live at Shibden with her. Anne asks her if she understands what the rumours and insinuations are about. Ann says that she does and makes it clear that she wants them to be together romantically.
Mariana visits Anne and says that she could leave Charles now. She asks if there is still a place for her in Anne’s heart, but Anne says that she has found someone she is happy with now, and Mariana leaves. Her husband lives to the age of 89.