Summary, Persuasion, by Jane Austen (World’s Classics Edition, 1990)
Summary, Chapter 1, pages 9-16
Sir Walter Elliot of Kellynch-hall, an estate in Somersetshire, England, loves nothing more than to look up his name and his family history in the Baronetage, a book that lists the details regarding titled families in England. The listing for Sir Walter includes information about his birth, his marriage, the death of his wife in 1801, and the names and birthdates of his children, and the death date of his wife. Sir Walter has added that Mary married Charles Musgrove in 1810. He has also added that, because he has no son to inherit his property, a distant male relative, William Walter Elliot, is the heir presumptive to the estate.
Sir Walter is a very vain man who thinks much of his rank and of his looks; at fifty-four, he is still a remarkably good-looking man. The only person besides himself whom he truly values is his eldest daughter, Elizabeth, who values rank and beauty as much as her father does. Elizabeth has been in charge of the household since her mother, Lady Elliot, died thirteen years ago. Sir Walter esteems his youngest daughter, Mary, because she has married respectably, an achievement that even Elizabeth, at age twenty-nine, has yet to reach. As for Sir Walter’s middle daughter, Anne, he finds little value in her. She has neither beauty (according to her father),nor does she share his pride—and therefore she goes unnoticed by father and sisters. The only person who truly loves Anne is a family friend, Lady Russell.
Elizabeth is bitter because she was determined to marry William Walter Elliot, whom she and her father met in Bath when she was a younger woman. Mr. Elliot, however, did not return her affection and instead married a woman with wealth but no rank. He also snubbed Sir Walter by neglecting to visit Kellynch-hall. Rumor has it that he has also spoken disrespectfully about Sir Walter and his daughters. Unmarried, yet still beautiful enough to escape censure for being an unmarried woman near thirty, Elizabeth lives in “prosperity and nothingness,” a life of ease and boredom.
However, Sir Walter has not been a good custodian of his wealth and property since his wife, who was sensible and moderate, died. He has to admit to Elizabeth that years of living beyond their means has landed them in serious difficulties. Elizabeth proposes that they cease contributions to all charities—and she takes secret satisfaction in being unable to bring Anne a present from her annual trip to Bath. Of course, such measures are insignificant in reducing their debt. Lady Russell and the estate agent, Mr. Shepherd, realize that Sir Walter and Elizabeth are helpless to see what must be done; they simply cannot conceive of curtailing their lifestyle. Therefore, Lady Russell and Mr. Shepherd attempt to take matters into their own hands.
From the very beginning, Austen establishes the social setting of the book: upper-class British society in the early nineteenth century. The Elliots are landed gentry with an established pedigree and, at least in Sir Walter’s and Elizabeth Elliot’s eyes, this social position gives them value and importance—and that importance must be supported by a properly lavish lifestyle. The Elliots’ sense of their importance, however, is insular; they are, so to speak, big fish in a little pond (a pond of their own making). They cannot conceive that others beyond their scope might not hold them in as much esteem as they hold themselves. William Elliot’s refusal to acknowledge their importance is momentous to them. And when the outside world dares to call in the Elliots’ debts, Sir Walter and Elizabeth are truly affronted. Like children, they believe the world revolves around themselves and only themselves.
In Sir Walter’s and Elizabeth’s eyes, a person’s value is determined by status, possessions, and good looks. Anyone—even a family member such as Anne—who lacks these qualities therefore lacks value.