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.
The opening discussion of money and marriage immediately establishes the important role that ordinary economic concerns will play in Austen's novel. Unlike the authors of Gothic and sentimental novels fashionable in her day, Austen refuses to romanticize; she recognizes that material realities constrain love and marriage. Nonetheless, she allows some of this sentimentality to seep into the novel, and the tension between reasonable economic concerns and overly romantic dreaming will constitute an important theme in the novel.
Indeed, this tension is already apparent in the characters of Elinor and Marianne, between the older sister's "sense" and the younger sister's "sensibility," the duality which the novel's title refers to. Elinor, age nineteen, is described as having a "strength of understanding" and "coolness of judgment", as well as the ability to govern and control her feelings. She modestly states that she "greatly esteems" Edward Ferrars, a remark typical of her rational, sensible attitude. In contrast, her younger sister Marianne, who more closely resembles their mother, is "everything but prudent." She longs for a man with taste, grace, spirit, and fire in his eyes, and considers her sister cold-hearted in her calm and tempered regard for Edward Ferrars. Their younger sister Margaret, age thirteen, also shares Marianne's excessive romanticism. Elinor thus stands out in her family as the only sensible and rational woman.
The sensibility of Marianne and Mrs. Dashwood manifests itself in their excessive mourning over the deaths of the two men, in contrast to Elinor's more silent grief. Not only are they overcome by sadness at the loss of first Old Mr. Dashwood and then Henry, but they then carry on dramatically about having to leave Norland and move to the smaller cottage. Before departing, Marianne wanders the grounds of Norland uttering a histrionic elegy: "Dear, dear Norland... Oh! happy house... And you, ye well-known trees!" Elinor, however, experiences a far more subdued depression--though she is leaving behind not just her home but also a man she has grown to deeply care for and admire.
The early chapters also display the wry irony for which Austen is so famous as a novelist. She is unsparingly critical of the characters she dislikes, but conveys her criticism with a pointed subtlety, which makes it all the more forceful. For example, in the opening chapter, Austen sketches the character of John Dashwood in three masterful sentences, achieving a biting acerbity: the author begins elliptically with a double negative, only slyly to refute it: "He was not an ill-disposed young man, unless to be rather cold-hearted and rather selfish is to be ill-disposed..." She then ends the paragraph by explicitly skewering both John and his wife: "Mrs. John Dashwood was a strong caricature of himself; more narrow-minded and selfish." Austen thus relies on understatement and irony to reveal her feelings towards her more disagreeable characters.