Based on Rudolph Besier's play, a tyrannical father tries to prevent his daughters from marrying; but the poets Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning manage to get together.
In 1845 Elizabeth Barrett (Norma Shearer) has been shut up as an invalid in a room for five years, but her doctor suggests a change. Elizabeth likes writing poetry. The five brothers and three sisters rejoice when they hear their father is going away for a while. Edward Moulton-Barrett (Charles Laughton) reprimands them for disturbing his oldest and favorite daughter Elizabeth. He insists she drink porter and says she means everything to him, wanting her to love him, not fear him. Henrietta (Maureen O'Sullivan) goes out in the snow to tell a soldier her father won't permit her to marry.
Robert Browning (Fredric March) calls on Elizabeth and already knows her from her writing. He wants to help her and says he loves her. Elizabeth says she has no place in her life for love, that she is dying. After he leaves, she starts walking; her doctor credits her will to live. She goes downstairs to see Robert, and they talk of going to Italy. Her father comes in and carries Elizabeth upstairs. He objects to her going to Italy. She tells Robert, and he criticizes her father's "devotion." He says he will always love her. Elizabeth loves him too but asks him to go. Robert asks her to marry him and will wait years if necessary.
The father is charmed by his flirtatious niece Bella (Marion Clayton) and realizes Elizabeth loves Robert. While father is away, Elizabeth meets Robert in the park. She sings "Wilt Thou Have My Hand" with her brothers and sisters. Father plans to move the family to the country. Robert tells Elizabeth they must be married at once. She asks him how he will feel if she dies, but he will take the risk. Henrietta shows Elizabeth Captain Cook in full uniform. Her father comes in and forbids Henrietta to see him, making her swear on the Bible. Elizabeth confronts her father. Elizabeth tells her maid Wilson (Una O'Connor) she is marrying Robert, and they are taking her to Italy; Wilson takes a letter to Robert. Henrietta tells Elizabeth she is going to see Cook and lie to her father. The father tells Elizabeth how the love of his wife turned to fear, doing what he thought was right. Elizabeth pities him. Elizabeth and Wilson leave, taking only her dog. Her sister Arabel cries hysterically as she reads Elizabeth's letter. Henrietta gives a letter to her father and asks him to forgive Elizabeth. He orders her dog destroyed. In the final scene with only Wilson as a witness Robert and Elizabeth are wed in a church.
This true story shows how a pious father can make his children miserable with his own perverted sense of duty from frustrated love. The buoyant spirit of the poetic Robert raises the spirits of Elizabeth sufficiently to liberate her from her father's control.