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When Mr Dashwood dies, his estate, Norland Park, passes directly to his only son and child of his first wife, John. His second wife, Mrs Dashwood, and their daughters, Elinor, Marianne and Margaret, are left only a small income. On his deathbed, Mr Dashwood extracts a promise from his son, that he will take care of his half-sisters, however John's selfish and greedy wife, Fanny, soon persuades him to renege. John and Fanny immediately take up their place as the new owners of Norland, while the Dashwood women are reduced to the position of, rather unwelcome, guests. Mrs Dashwood begins looking for somewhere else to live.

In the meantime, Fanny's brother, Edward Ferrars, a pleasant, unassuming, intelligent but reserved young man, visits Norland and soon forms an attachment with Elinor. Fanny disapproves the match and offends Mrs Dashwood with the implication that Elinor is motivated by money rather than love. Mrs Dashwood indignantly speeds her search for a new home.

Mrs Dashwood moves her family to Barton Cottage in Devonshire, near the home of her cousin Sir John Middleton. Their new home lacks many of the conveniences that they have been used to, however they are warmly received by Sir John, and welcomed into the local society, meeting his wife, Lady Middleton, his mother-in-law, Mrs Jennings and his friend, the grave, quiet, and gentlemanly Colonel Brandon. It soon becomes apparent that Colonel Brandon is attracted to Marianne, and Mrs Jennings teases them about it. Marianne is not pleased as she considers Colonel Brandon, at thirty-five, to be an old bachelor incapable of falling in love, or inspiring love in anyone else.

Marianne, out for a walk, gets caught in the rain, slips, and sprains her ankle. The dashing, handsome John Willoughby sees the accident and assists her. Marianne quickly comes to admire his good looks and outspoken views on poetry, music, art and love. Mr Willoughby's attentions are so overt that Elinor and Mrs Dashwood begin to suspect that the couple is secretly engaged. Elinor cautions Marianne against her unguarded conduct, but Marianne refuses to check her emotions, believing this to be a falsehood. Unexpectedly one day, Mr Willoughby informs the Dashwoods that his aunt is sending him to London on business, indefinitely. Marianne is distraught and abandons herself to her sorrow.
Edward Ferrars then pays a short visit to Barton Cottage but seems unhappy and out of sorts. Elinor fears that he no longer has feelings for her, but feels compelled, by a sense of duty, to protect her family from knowing her heartache. Soon after Edward departs, Anne and Lucy Steele, the vulgar and uneducated cousins of Lady Middleton, come to stay at Barton Park. With malicious intent, and clearly aware of their attachment, Lucy informs Elinor of her secret four year engagement to Edward Ferrars, displaying proofs of her veracity. Elinor comes to understand the inconsistencies of Edward's behavior to her and acquits him of blame. She is charitable enough to pity Edward for being held to a loveless engagement by his gentlemanly honor.

As winter approaches, Elinor and Marianne accompany Mrs Jennings' to London. Upon arriving, Marianne writes a series of letters to Mr Willoughby which go unanswered. When they finally meet, Mr Willoughby greets Marianne reluctantly and coldly, to her extreme distress. Soon Marianne receives a curt letter enclosing their former correspondence and love tokens, including a lock of her hair and informing her of his engagement to a young lady of large fortune. Marianne is devastated, and admits to Elinor that she and Willoughby were never engaged, but she loved him and he led her to believe he loved her. In sympathy for Marianne, and to illuminate his character, Colonel Brandon reveals to Elinor that Mr Willoughby had seduced Brandon's fifteen year old ward, and abandoned her when she became pregnant.

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