Anne Elliot is an intelligent, overlooked middle daughter of the vain Sir Walter Elliot, who cares only for good looks and rank, who over spends and forces the family into retrenching to Bath. Elizabeth, the self-involved older sister resembles her father in temperament. Anne’s younger sister, Mary, is a nervous, clinging woman who has made an unspectacular marriage to Charles Musgrove of Uppercross Hall, the heir to a rural but respected local squire.
Ann, at age 19, considered accepting a proposal of marriage from the handsome, young naval officer Frederick Wentworth. He was clever, confident, and ambitious, but poor and with no particular family connections to recommend him. Her older friend and mentor, Lady Russell, acting in place of Anne's late mother, persuaded her to break the engagement. Lady Russell questioned the wisdom of Anne marrying a penniless young naval officer without family or connections and whose prospects were so uncertain. Wentworth is left bitter at Lady Russell’s interference and Anne’s own want of fortitude.
Now 27, and still unmarried, Anne re-encounters her former love when his sister and brother-in-law, the Crofts, take out a lease on Kellynch. Wentworth is now a captain and wealthy from maritime victories in the Napoleonic wars. However, he has not forgiven Anne for rejecting him. While publicly declaring that he is ready to marry any suitable young woman who catches his fancy, he privately resolves that he is ready to become attached to any appealing young woman with the exception of Anne Elliot.
Through a series of events, Anne and Frederick realize they still admire and love each other, but neither is sure if their feelings are reciprocated. Sir Walter’s heir, William Elliot reunites with the family and everyone is delighted with the reunion, but Ann, who is suspicious of his motives and character. Mrs. Smith, an former school friend of Ann’s, warns Ann about William Elliot’s true character and self center motives. The Musgroves, Crofts, Captain Harville and Wentworth all converge on Bath. Wentworth overhears Ann and Captain Harville discussing the relative faithfulness of men and women in love. Wentworth writes a note to Anne detailing his feelings for her. In a tender scene, Anne and Wentworth reconcile and renew their engagement.
The match is now more palatable to Anne’s family — their waning fortunes and Wentworth’s waxing ones have made a considerable difference. Also, ever overvaluing good looks, Sir Walter is favorably impressed with his future son-in-law’s appearance. Lady Russell admits she has been completely wrong about Captain Wentworth, and she and Anne remain friends.
Prudence (privilege, disguised as wisdom, going by the rules) versus romance, in which prudence comes up against romance and its transformative capacities and possibilities. Ann had been forced into prudence in her youth, she learned romance as she grew older. This well describes the way in which Austen reverses the usual narrative associated of youth with romance and feeling and age with reason and wisdom.
The relationship between Ann and Frederick represents the avoidance of both cold alliance for social privilege and the moral risks of passion. As the novel brings the lovers together in its final chapters, their reunion is said to be better than the first love because it is “fixed in a knowledge of each other’s character, truth, and attachment” – in other works, in realism and mutuality (like the Crofts) which makes them more justified in acting. (p. 227)
Mrs. Croft reprimands Captain Wentworth because he speaks of women as if they “were all fine ladies, instead of rational creatures. We none of us expect to be in smooth water all our days.” (p. 66) She is a woman willing to exert herself and bear discomfort rather than aim for the social status of the privileged fine lady. In this, she repudiates the fixed hierarchical idea of women as weak vessels who are unreasonable, delicate, and docile by nature.
Before the 19th century, marriage was a practical consideration viewed as an economic alliance and a guarantor of status in society. It was also potentially a source of emotional sustenance, although that was not the primary reason to enter into marriage. The marital relationship was the keystone of the early modern family economy. Only those who married had the opportunity to establish their own household, and many European states made economic viability a condition before permission to marry was granted. The financial and material contribution of both spouses was essential. (Simonton, p. 24). Social class was also an important consideration when deciding who was appropriate to marry; if both people were not of the same social class, there was not enough motivation to enter into married. Marriage, love, and romance were not the first considerations to get married before the late 18th century. The rise of individualism (a result of the French Revolution) together with a new respect for the individual pursuit of happiness in the late eighteenth centuries brought about the rise of a companionate marriage. (Class discussions).