Persuasion opens with a brief history of the Elliot family as recorded in Sir Walter Elliot's favorite book, The Baronetcy. We learn that the Elliots are a respected, titled, landowning family. Lady Elliot, Sir Walter's wife died fourtee n years ago and left him with three daughters: Elizabeth, Anne, and Mary. Both Elizabeth and Anne are single, but Mary, the youngest is married to a wealthy man named Charles Musgrove; they live close by. Sir Walter, who lavishly overspends, has brought the family into great debt. When Lady Russell, a trusted family advisor, suggests that the Elliots reduce their spending, Sir Walter is horrified. He is exceedingly vain and cannot bear to imagine life without his usual comforts. But with no other option, the Elliots decide they must relocate to a house in Bath where their expenses will be more manageable. They intend to rent the family estate, Kellynch Hall.

They soon find excellent tenants to rent their home; Admiral and Mrs. Croft are wealthy and well-mannered Navy people who have a model marriage. Sir Walter is relieved that the Admiral is a good-looking man. Though Sir Walter dislikes that the Navy brings "men of obscure birth into undue distinction," he is satisfied with Admiral and Mrs. Croft as tenants for his home. Anne Elliot, the middle daughter, is also excited to meet the Crofts; Mrs. Croft is the sister of the man Anne loves. Eight years ago, she was engaged to be married to Captain Frederick Wentworth, but Lady Russell persuaded her that Captain Wentworth was not of high enough consequence, and Anne called off the engagement. With the Crofts at Kellynch, Anne hopes to see Captain Wentworth again.

Sir Walter, Elizabeth, and Mrs. Clay (a widowed, somewhat lower-class friend of the family) leave for Bath. Anne goes to stay with her sister Mary at Uppercross Cottage for a period of two months. Mary complains often and Anne patiently listens to her sister's worries. At Uppercross, Anne finds the Musgrove family delightful. Mr. and Mrs. Musgrove have three grown children: Charles (Mary's husband), Henrietta, and Louisa. Anne marvels at the bustling nature of the household and the Musgroves' clear affection for their children. Soon news comes that Captain Wentworth has returned from sea and is staying with his sister at Kellynch. Captain Wentworth makes friends with Mr. Musgrove, and he becomes a daily visitor at Uppercross. Anne is at first anxious to see him again after such a long time, but his actions toward her are merely detached and polite. He seems more smitten with Henrietta and Louisa Musgrove. Anne resigns herself to the idea that she has lost Captain Wentworth's love forever.

Captain Wentworth proposes that they all take a trip to Lyme to go visit his friends the Harvilles. While they are there, a good-looking gentleman takes notice of Anne; they later discover that this man is Mr. Elliot, Anne's cousin and Sir Walter' s heir to Kellynch. The group decides to go for a morning walk on the beach. Louisa Musgrove has a bad fall and is knocked unconscious. Anne keeps a level head and does all she can to care for Louisa. The doctor determines that Louisa will recover, but she will have to remain in Lyme for several months. Captain Wentworth blames himself for Louisa's fall and tries to help the Musgrove family. Anne returns to Uppercross to help Mr. and Mrs. Musgrove care for their younger children. After a few weeks, she leaves to stay with Lady Russell.

After Christmas, Lady Russell and Anne decide that they must rejoin the rest of the Elliot family in Bath, much to Anne's dismay. Sir Walter and Elizabeth care little about her, but they are glad to have her come to Bath. In Bath, she is formally introduced to her cousin Mr. Elliot, who has made peace with his once estranged uncle, Sir Walter. Though she questions Mr. Elliot's motives for his sudden apology, she accepts him as a pleasing gentleman. Mr. Elliot is extraordinarily appreciative of Anne, and i t is soon apparent that he seeks to make her his wife. While in Bath, Anne becomes reacquainted with an old school friend, Mrs. Smith, who has recently been widowed and fallen into hard times. From Mrs. Smith, Anne learns about Mr. Elliot's hidden past; she finds out that he has mistreated Mrs. Smith and that he plans to marry Anne to ensure that he becomes the sole heir of the Kellynch baronetcy. Mr. Elliot fears that Sir Walter will marry Mrs. Clay, have a son, and thereby deprive him of his title. He plots to ensure that he will remain Sir Walter's heir. Anne is appalled to hear this news.

The Crofts arrive in Bath with news of two engagements; Henrietta will marry her cousin Charles Hayter, and Louisa will marry Captain Benwick, a man she met at Lyme while she was convalescing. Anne is overjoyed that Captain Wentworth is not promised to Louisa and is free once again. Captain Wentworth soon arrives in Bath. He is now a much richer man than he was eight years ago, and Sir Walter reluctantly admits him into their social circle. Wentworth grows jealous because he believes Anne is attached to her cousin Mr. Elliot. Yet he writes Anne a love letter in which he describes his true, constant, and undying love for her. Anne is thrilled and they become engaged. Mr. Elliot is shocked that his plan to marry Anne has been foiled. He and Mrs. Clay leave Bath. It is rumored that they are together. There is no longer any danger that Sir Walter will marry beneath his station. Sir Walter and Lady Russell give their approval for the marriage between Anne and Captain Wentworth.