Shirley is set in Yorkshire during the wars and all the trade was down. A lot of the businessmen were going bankrupt and didn't have any money for their families. Robert Moore owned a mill and was forced to do anything and everything in order to keep the mill running. He was so into his business that he didn't pay attention to Caroline Helstone, his cousin that is in love with him. Caroline is not allowed to visit him because her uncle had arguments with Robert in the past.
A smart, extremely wealthy young woman named Shirley Keelder comes back to the manor and everyone notices her, especially Robert who tries to marry her. Shirley and Caroline become friends and Caroline won't admit that she has feelings for Robert, and Caroline believes that Shirley also has feelings for Robert. Caroline has hard feelings toward Shirley because Shirley gets one thousand pounds a year, and she is not allowed to have a job because she is an orphan living with her uncle, and her family forbids it. She just reads books and stitches things for poor people.
At this point, the workers at the mill are absolutely fed up. Things at the mill continue to go downhill, and the workers are fed up. People rioting attack the mill, but Robert was ready and has his friends help him defend the property. A lot of people are hurt, and one is even killed. Soon after this incident, Robert's brother Louis comes and is employed as a tutor for the Sympsons, who have come to stay with Shirley at her estate for a while. Caroline becomes sick and weak from being lovesick and stays sick for so long that she thinks she is going to die, but her mother whom she has not seen for a long time shows herself. Caroline then sees it as a reason to live. She then regains her friendship with Shirley. Shirley still has the Sympsons in her estate with her.
Louis, who once served as Shirley's tutor, is still in love with her. Catherine recognizes Shirley's strange attitude toward Louis...