Austen opens her novel by introducing Sir Walter Elliot, the owner of Kellynch Hall, and a man for whom "vanity was the beginning and end of [his] character." His favorite book, the reader is told, is the Baronetage, a book which holds record of the most important families in England, and which, most importantly records Sir Walter's own personal history. In this passage, we learn that Sir Walter's wife, Elizabeth, has passed away fourteen years ago, and that he has three daughters: Elizabeth, Anne, and Mary. Of the girls, only Mary, the youngest, is married (to a Mr. Charles Musgrove). Having only three daughters and no sons, the Elliot family fortune will pass to William Elliot, the girls' cousin, upon the death of Sir Walter. Sir Walter has decided, "for his daughters' sake," not to remarry.
Sir Walter's deceased wife, the former Lady Elliot, had been an excellent woman, and had complemented her husband's flaws with her sensibility and good judgment. But in the years since her passing, Sir Walter has fallen in love with himself. Lady Russell, an old friend of Lady Elliot has helped Sir Walter raise his daughters and has become a trusted family advisor.
In this opening chapter, we are also introduced to the three Elliot daughters: Elizabeth, who is beautiful, yet vain like her father; Anne, who has a sweetness of character, but is often overlooked by her family; and Mary, who thinks herself very important since her marriage. Of the three, Elizabeth is the favorite of Sir Walter, and Anne is the favorite of Lady Russell.
The history of Mr. William Elliot is also recounted in this chapter. The family had hoped their heir would marry Elizabeth, yet he had slighted and disappointed them, opting for independence by marrying another woman of fortune and lower birth. Since this slight seven years ago, he has not been in the good graces of the Elliot family.
Finally, we learn that the Elliot family is distressed for money. Sir Walter has spent lavishly on a lifestyle well beyond his means. Mr. Shepard and Lady Russell, two trusted family advisors, help the Elliots save money and get their finances back in order.
Mr. Shepard and Lady Russell draw up a plan for ways that Sir Elliot can save money. They decide that he must "retrench" by seriously cutting back on his expenditures if he is to get out of the large debt he has accrued. Lady Russell, argues that such cuts will in no way lessen Sir Walter's standing in the eyes of sensible people since "Kellynch Hall has a respectability in itself, which cannot be affected by these reductions." Anne agrees and thinks their spending should be cut even more, since there is much they do not need.
Yet, Sir Walter will not hear of altering his lifestyle so significantly. He believes doing without such comforts would be disgraceful to his rank. Finally, Mr. Shepard suggests that the Elliots should leave Kellynch Hall for a short time. In another house, he reasons, the Elliots could more easily alter their style of living to become a more modest household. Sir Walter agrees to this option only if they can find a tenant worthy enough to rent Kellynch. Sir Walter decides that the family will relocate to Bath, dismissing Anne's dislike of the city.
Lady Russell thinks the relocation of the family is a very good idea for two reasons: first, it will help the Elliots save money, and second, it will hopefully separate Elizabeth from her new friend Mrs. Clay, the widowed daughter of Mr. Shepard. Lady Russell is a good woman, but she values propriety, rank, and consequence. She feels that it is out of place for Elizabeth to be friends with Mrs. Clay and she feels the slight that Elizabeth prefers the company of this woman to Anne. We learn that Lady Russell thinks Mrs. Clay a "very dangerous companion."
The opening chapters of Persuasion introduce us to the main characters of the novel and set up the problem which will drive the rest of the plot. The primary conflict is the difficulty of saving money while keeping up the appearance of a rich and titled landowner. The problem Sir Walter faces is not unique; it emerges in part because of the class system of early nineteenth- century England. Such a system, in which families are strictly categorized by their wealth, rank, and birth, necessitates living a lifestyle consistent with one's class. Sir Walter is horrified that people might think less of him for spending less money and is shocked at the prospect of giving up comforts that he considers necessities.
Austen introduces the concept of "retrenching" and implies that it is not an infrequent occurrence for the wealthy families of her time. "Retrenching" involves living less ostentatiously for a period of time in order to save money and get out of debt. In this period of industrial and imperial progress, the traditional aristocracy was having an increasingly difficult time maintaining their large estates and lavish way of living. Lady Russell suggests that the retrenching of respected families is a common occurrence. She notes that, "there will be nothing singular in his case, and it is singularity which often makes the worst part of our suffering, as it always does of our conduct."
In these chapters, we see the first example of persuasion. Anne, Lady Russell, and Mr. Shepard gently convince Sir Walter that it would be best for him to leave Kellynch Hall for a time. They persuade not by appealing to practicality, about which he cares little, but by appealing to his vanity. He is induced to believe that Bath will provide him more consequence and enjoyment than he can receive in Somersetshire. This is an example of positive persuasion that influences a decision on the side of practicality.
These opening chapters establish the Elliot family dynamics. Sir Walter is a "silly parent," and like silly parents in many Austen novels, he precipitates the initial crisis. His vanity and impracticality mean that his more sensible daughter, Anne, must find a way to straighten out the mess. Sir Walter serves as a foil for the valued characteristics which will bring closure to the novel. By existing as a conceited, image-conscious, and insensible man, Sir Walter highlights Anne's opposing qualities of self-deprecation, humility, and sensibility. He has not transmitted his characteristics to her, yet their differences foreshadow potential future conflict in the novel.