The Hornett household is dominated by Emma, the tyrannical wife of Henry, sister-in-law of Edie, and mother of Shirley.
Able Seaman Albert Tuffnell is in love with Shirley, but he views the prospect of marrying into her family with concern. He is an orphan and has never known home life. He decides to shock Mrs Hornett into recognising how badly she behaves to other people. By pretending to jilt Shirley on their wedding morning he sets off a chain of events that lead family, neighbours and even the vicar to tell Emma what they think of her. She is duly chastened and all ends happily, though not without a hint that Shirley has the potential to become as formidable a wife as her mother has been.