In working-class Leeds in the 1920s, Jess is starting on her journey through life. Growing up in the aftermath of the Great War, she is torn between her downtrodden father and her cantankerous, ambitious mother. After a disastrous spell as housekeeper to the local priest, she works happily in the office of her uncle's shoe factory and falls in love with her childhood sweetheart, Wilf.
But Wilf is determined to be a successful artist, and Jess can't bring herself to stand in the way of his dreams. She also faces a bigger fight: she is consumed by the desire to save her godchild Leila from an orphanage - a battle that eventually threatens to break her heart.