Acknowledgement: This work has been summarized using the Penguin 1965 edition. Quotations are for the most part taken from that work, as are paraphrases of its commentary.
Overall Impression: A very fine and moving story.
Notes from the Penguin edition: Written in a race against her final illness (a bilious fever?), published posthumously by her brother Henry.
The novel opens in the summer 1814 in Somersetshire. Sir Walter Elliot is a baronet and widower of 14 years (his wife was named Elizabeth), vain, and unwise in his spending to maintain his elevated lifestyle, and now in debt. His oldest daughter Elizabeth is 29, runs the house (Kellynch-hall), is unmarried and past her "bloom", as is Anne 27 y/o. Elizabeth and her father have little affection for Anne, who is like a rejected Cinderella figure. The younger sister, Mary, has married Charles Musgrove. The future male heir of the estate, William Walter Elliot, has snubbed the family and has married a wealthy woman of common origins.
To manage his debts, Sir Walter is persuaded to move out of Kellynch-hall and into more modest quarters in Bath. His deceased wife's close friend Lady Russell has served as an adviser for the daughters and disapproves (as does Anne) of Elizabeth's gold-digging friend Mrs. Penelope Clay, who is a divorcee with two children and seems to be after Sir Walter. The Elliots are further persuaded to lease Kellynch-hall to Admiral and Mrs. (Sophia) Croft, despite Sir Walter's disparaging view of men who make their fortunes this way. Sophia has two brothers, Mr. Edward Wentworth (curate at Monkford) and Capn. Frederick Wentworth. Frederick and Anne had been in love when she was 19 but Lady Russell and her father disapproved of his then limited means and persuaded Anne to break off the relationship-- "an early loss of bloom and spirits had been their lasting effect". She subsequently turned down a marriage proposal from Charles Musgrove.
Sir Walter, Eliz., and Mrs. Clay go to Bath, but Anne, unwanted in Bath, goes to visit her hypochondriacal sister Mary at the Musgroves (Uppercross). She is loving to Mary's children Charles and Walter and is cordially and lovingly received by the affluent Mr. and Mrs. Charles Musgrove, Mary's husbands parents. Their poor cousins, the Hayters, live nearby (Mrs. Hayter is Mrs. Musgrove's sister). The Musgrove's good-for-nothing but now deceased son, Richard, had been aboard the ship Capn. Wentworth commanded and he arrives to the praise of the Musgroves. He is now seeking a wife ("a strong mind with sweetness of manner"). He and Anne have an awkward brief meeting where he is struck at how much she has altered in appearance. He has not forgiven her hurting him so badly and when dining later with them, is coolly polite to Anne. They discuss his naval career, Richard, and having women aboard ships (which Mrs. Croft did but which he opposes). Anne plays the pianoforte so others can dance, and Frederick inquires of another whether she ever dances anymore.
Cousin Charles Hayter is interested in the Musgrove oldest daughter Henrietta, and becomes jealous at her interest in Wentworth. Wentworth visits with sister Louisa but shows unexpected kindness to Anne in helping her play with young Walter.
In the autumn, Mary and Charles, Wentworth, Anne, and the two sisters walk to Winthrop where the Hayters live-- Henrietta reluctantly visits with Charles (she has reservations about his limited means and connections). Wentworth praises decisiveness and reliability to Louisa and learns from her that Anne turned down Charles Musgrove. He seems to be courting Louisa.
In November, they visit Lyme, where Wentworth's wounded and sickly friend Capn. Harville lives with his wife. Their mutual friend Capn. James Benwick is staying with them. The latter is a sensitive soul and poetry lover, still distraught over the death of his intended, Harville's sister Fanny. Anne finds similar interests in him and consoles him, advising him to read more prose. They encounter William Elliot at the Cobb, who looks on Anne with admiration, though Anne does not recognize him. Anne's bloom seems to return, which Wentworth notices. Louisa foolishly jumps from the steps on the Cobb and misses Wentworth, sustaining a head injury. She is taken to the Harvilles and nursed by Mrs. Harville and Mary. Mary stays behind while Anne, Henrietta, and the distraught Wentworth ride back to Uppercross to inform Louisa's parents.
Louisa is improving and Anne sadly leaves the Musgroves to visit with Lady Russell at Kellynch-lodge. They visit with the Crofts at Kellynch-hall. The Crofts comment on all the mirrors her father had employed and which they have removed. Capn. Benwick is said to want to visit Anne but never comes. Lady Russell takes Anne to Bath to join her father, et al at Camden-place. William Elliot has inexplicably taken a very substantial renewed interest in Anne's family, which puzzles Anne but pleases Lady Russell. He explains away his neglect, but Anne remains suspicious and has reservation about his character and behaviors. Sir Walter goes to great efforts trying to reestablish a connection to his noble cousin, dowager Viscountess Darymple and her daughter Miss Carteret.
Anne makes contact with her much admired former governess Mrs. Hamilton Smith, now widowed, impoverished, and in ill-health. Anne's father criticizes her for pursuing this connection especially when she declines an invitation to Lady Darymple's to keep an engagement with her. Lady Russell advocates matching up Anne with the recently widowed William Elliot, but Anne discourages this.
Anne learns from Mary and the Crofts that Louisa and Capn. Benwick have become engaged (with Wentworth harboring no hard feelings) and that Henrietta is engaged to Charles Hayter. Anne has an embarrassing encounter with Wentworth in Bath-- and he is snubbed by Elizabeth. At a concert, Wentworth indicates indirectly he could never have loved Louisa. Anne glows and her eyes are bright. He seemed to be returning to her at last. William moves in on Anne and expresses tender sentiments, provoking jealousy in Wentworth.
After Anne assures her she will not marry William, Mrs. Smith divulges all she knows about his unsavory character, cold-bloodedness, and motivations. He married solely for money, he intentionally and coldly rejected Anne's family to prevent any effort to match him with Elizabeth. He was a close friend of Mrs. Smith's husband, Charles, at a time when her husband was the wealthier, and got to know Anne's name through Mrs. Smith at this time. He had contempt for the baronetcy and said he would sell it if he had the chance. She shows Anne a letter from the 23 y/o William to Charles in which he denounces the Elliot name and disparages Sir Walter. But now he has reconsidered the value of the baronetcy, and wants to court Anne and discourage Mrs. Clay's relationship with Sir Walter, a threat to his inheritance. Mrs. Smith learned through the nurse of Mrs. Wallis (wife of William's friend's Colonel Wallis) that he hopes to put into his marriage articles with Anne a provision preventing Sir Walter and Mrs. Clay marrying. William had previously led Mrs. Smith's husband into excessive expenses leading to his ruin, the extent of which was apparent fully only at his death. Though William was named as Charles' executor, he refused to serve and demonstrated cold-hearted indifference and ingratitude to her. She had a property in the West Indies she needed help in legally unencumbering, and hoped to get William's help in doing this. Anne resolves to inform Lady Russell about William's true nature.
Anne ponders such hypocrisy in William and Mrs. Clay. They are seen meeting in the street-- why? Mary and the Musgroves arrive in Bath and 2 weddings are being planned.
At the Musgroves lodging, Anne talks with Capn. Harville about the strength and constancy of female versus male love as Wentworth is seen writing a letter. Harville notes that Capn. Benwick has gotten over his grief for Fanny's death quickly and now loves Louisa. Anne comments that it would be unlikely that Fanny would have gotten over her love for him so fast. "We certainly do not forget you, as soon as you forget us. It is, perhaps, our fate rather than our merit. We cannot help ourselves. We live at home, quiet, confined, and our feelings prey upon us. You are forced on exertion. You have a profession, pursuits, business of some sort or other, to take you back into the world immediately, and continual occupation and change soon weaken impressions." Harville argues of men that "as our bodies are the strongest, so are our feelings..." But Anne says "Your feelings may be the strongest ... but ours are the most tender. Man is more robust than woman, but he is not longer-lived... You have difficulties, and privations, and dangers enough to struggle with... It would be hard indeed... if woman's feelings were to be added to all this... All the privilege I claim for my own sex ... is that of loving longest, when existence or when hope is gone. Wentworth hands Anne his letter-- in it he asks if he is too late to win her love back, that his love for her has not suffered an earlier death, that he has loved none but her. Anne conveys her desire to see him. They meet on the street and exchange rapturous thoughts and feelings. He describes his jealousy for William and the unintended entanglement with Louisa, and reassures her as to her beauty. Anne defends her bowing to Lady Russell's advice out of a sense of duty but indicates she would have been persuaded to him in 1808 when he returned somewhat better off finacially.
Their marriage is accepted by Sir Walter, coolly by Elizabeth (who remains without prospects of her own), and graciously by Lady Russell (who admits she had been wrong about him). It disrupts William's cunning plans, but his double game is revealed when he takes Mrs. Clay under his protection (still to prevent Sir Walter's marriage). Wentworth helps Mrs. Smith disentangle her West Indies property.