Old Mr. Dashwood is the owner of a large estate in Sussex called Norland Park. Following the death of his sister, Mr. Dashwood invites his nephew Mr. Henry Dashwood to come live with him at Norland. The younger Mr. Dashwood brings John Dashwood, his son from a previous marriage, as well as the three daughters born to his present wife. John Dashwood is grown and married, and has a four-year-old son, Harry. When Old Mr. Dashwood dies, he leaves his estate to John and little Harry, who had much endeared himself to the old man. But now John's father, Henry Dashwood, is left with no way of supporting his wife and three daughters, and he too dies one year later, leaving only ten thousand pounds for his family. Just before his death, he makes his son John promise to care for his stepmother and three half-sisters.
Mr. John Dashwood initially intends to keep his promise and treat his female relatives generously, but his wife Fanny, a narrow-minded and selfish woman, convinces him to leave them only five hundred pounds apiece. Fanny moves into Norland immediately following Mr. Henry Dashwood's death and becomes mistress of the estate, relegating John's stepmother Mrs. Dashwood and half-sisters Elinor, Marianne, and Margaret to the status of mere visitors.
Fanny's brother, Edward Ferrars, visits Norland for several weeks and develops a strong attachment to Elinor Dashwood. Edward is the eldest son of a man who died very rich; now his entire fate depends upon his mother's will. Although he is shy and not particularly handsome, he has an open, affectionate heart. His mother and sister want him to distinguish himself and earn prestige, but Edward is a simple man, who longs only for domestic comfort.
In her discussions with her mother and her older sister, Marianne Dashwood expresses her disappointment that Edward is not a more striking, artistic, poetic man. She can tell that Elinor has feelings for Edward but becomes frustrated when Elinor concedes only that she "likes" and "esteems" him; Marianne longs to hear her sister profess her passionate devotion. However, Elinor remains timid because she is still unsure that Edward reciprocates her affection; such things are not usually openly expressed until after the engagement.
Six months after Fanny installs herself as mistress at Norland, Mrs. Dashwood receives a letter from her cousin Sir John Middleton, inviting her and her daughters to reside at Barton Cottage on his property in Devonshire. Eager to distance herself from Fanny's rudeness and insensitivity, Mrs. Dashwood immediately accepts the invitation and sends three servants ahead to Barton to prepare the house for their arrival. She informs John and Fanny of their imminent departure and encourages Edward Ferrars to come visit them at Barton. Following Marianne's tearful goodbye to their home at Norland, the family sets out for Barton Cottage.
The opening pages of Sense and Sensibility are concerned with the laws of inheritance and succession that govern the fate of the Dashwood family property. According to the laws of male primogeniture effective in the mid-nineteenth century, estates went to the closest male descendant of the original owner. Since Old Mr. Dashwood has no sons, his estate is bequeathed to his nephew, Henry Dashwood. Henry, in turn, leaves the estate to his eldest son, John. However, as Austen notes, Henry Dashwood's money was far more vital to his daughters than to his son, because John was already provided for both by his mother's fortune--which he inherited as eldest son--and by the money he received by marrying his own wife. (In general, a man inherited all of his wife's money upon marriage, though the wife usually entered into the marriage with a "settlement," a legal document ensuring that some of her property would revert to her or her children following her husband's death.) In this case, the money that Mr. Henry Dashwood's late first wife brought to the marriage was settled on their son John, and therefore could not be used to help his second wife or his daughters by that second wife. Since Henry's second wife and their three daughters could not inherit any of the money from that first marriage, they are in much greater need of the money from Old Mr. Dashwood's estate.