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Published in 1811, Sense and Sensibility was the first of Austen's novels to be published, under the pseudonym "A Lady". The novel has been adapted for film and television a number of times, the two most recent being the 1995 movie directed by Ang Lee and the 2008 BBC television version adapted by Andrew Davies.
Elinor and Marianne are two daughters of Mr. Dashwood by his second wife. They have a younger sister, Margaret, and an older half-brother named John. When their father dies, the family estate passes to John and the Dashwood women are left in reduced circumstances. Fortunately, a distant relative offers to rent the women a cottage on his property.
The novel follows the Dashwood sisters to their new home, where they experience both romance and heartbreak. The contrast between the sisters' characters is eventually resolved as they each find love and lasting happiness. This leads some to believe that the book's title describes how Elinor and Marianne find a balance between sense and sensibility in life and love.
When Mr. Dashwood dies, his estate, "Norland", passes to his only son, John. This leaves his second wife and three daughters, Elinor, Marianne, and Margaret, at the mercy of their stepson/half-brother and his selfish wife Fanny. Treated as unwelcome guests, the Dashwood women begin looking for another place to live. Meanwhile, Elinor grows attached to Fanny's brother Edward Ferrars, an unassuming, intelligent young man. But because Mrs. Ferrars wants her son to marry a woman of high rank or great estate, if not both, Elinor does not allow herself to hope for marriage.
Mrs. Dashwood and her daughters move from Norland to Barton Cottage in Devonshire, owned by their distant cousin Sir John Middleton, who lives at Barton Park with his family. Also staying there are Mrs. Jennings (Lady Middleton's mother) and Colonel Brandon, an old friend of Sir John. The gossipy Mrs. Jennings decides that Colonel Brandon must be in love with Marianne, and teases them about it. Marianne is displeased: she considers Colonel Brandon, at age thirty-five, to be an old bachelor incapable of falling in love or inspiring love in anyone else.
Marianne, out for a stroll, gets caught in the rain, slips, and sprains her ankle. The dashing and handsome Mr. Willoughby rescues Marianne, carries her back home, and wins her admiration. He comes to visit her every day, and Elinor and Mrs. Dashwood begin to suspect that the couple has secretly become engaged. However, Mrs. Dashwood's sentimental nature prevents her from asking Marianne about her relationship with Willoughby. Marianne is devastated when Willoughby announces that he must go to London on business, not to return for at least a year.
Edward Ferrars visits the Dashwoods at Barton Cottage, but seems unhappy and is distant towards Elinor. She fears that he no longer has feelings for her. However, unlike Marianne, she does not wallow in her sadness, feeling it her duty to be outwardly calm for the sake of her mother and sisters, who all dote on Edward and have firm faith in his love for Elinor.
Shortly afterward, Anne and Lucy Steele, cousins of Lady Middleton, come to stay at Barton Park. Sir John tells Lucy that Elinor is attached to Edward, prompting Lucy to inform Elinor that she (Lucy) has been secretly engaged to Edward for four years. Although Elinor initially blames Edward for engaging her affections when he was not free to do so, she realizes that he became engaged to Lucy while he was young and naïve. She understands that Edward does not love Lucy, but that he will not hurt or dishonour her by breaking their engagement. Elinor hides her disappointment, and works to convince Lucy that she feels nothing for Edward.
Elinor and Marianne spend the winter at Mrs. Jennings' home in London. Marianne's letters to Willoughby go unanswered, and he treats her coldly when he sees her at a party. He later sends Marianne a letter informing her that he is engaged to a Miss Grey, a very wealthy and high-born woman. Marianne admits to Elinor that she and Willoughby were never engaged, but that she loved him and he led her to believe that he loved her.
Colonel Brandon tells Elinor that Willoughby had seduced Brandon's ward, Eliza Williams, and abandoned her when she became pregnant. Brandon was once in love with Miss Williams' mother, a woman who resembled Marianne and whose life was destroyed by an unhappy arranged marriage to the Colonel's brother.
Mrs. Ferrars discovers Edward and Lucy's engagement; when he refuses to end it, she disinherits him, in immediate favour of his brother Robert. Elinor and Marianne feel sorry for Edward, and think him honourable for remaining engaged to a woman with whom he will probably not be happy. Edward plans to take holy orders to earn his living, and Colonel Brandon, knowing how lives can be ruined when love is denied, offers Edward the living of the parish of Delaford. Elinor meets Edward's boorish brother Robert and is shocked that he has no qualms about claiming his brother's inheritance.
The sisters end their winter idyll in London and begin their return trip to Barton via a stayover in Cleveland. There, Marianne, miserable over Willoughby, wanders in the rain and becomes very ill. Colonel Brandon goes to get Mrs. Dashwood. Willoughby arrives and tells Elinor that he was disinherited when his benefactress discovered his seduction of Miss Williams, so he decided to marry the wealthy Miss Grey. He says that he still loves Marianne, and seeks forgiveness, but has poor excuses for his selfish actions. Meanwhile, Colonel Brandon tells Mrs. Dashwood that he loves Marianne.
Marianne recovers and the Dashwoods return to Barton Cottage. Elinor tells Marianne about Willoughby's visit. Marianne admits that, although she loved Willoughby, she could not have been happy with the libertine father of an illegitimate child even if he had stood by her. Marianne also realizes that her illness was brought on by her wallowing in her grief, by her excessive sensibility, and that, had she died, it would have been morally equivalent to suicide. She now resolves to model herself after Elinor's courage and good sense.
The family learns that Lucy has married "Mr. Ferrars". When Mrs. Dashwood sees how upset Elinor is, she finally realizes how strong Elinor's feelings for Edward are and is sorry that she did not pay more attention to her unhappiness. However, the very next day Edward arrives and reveals that it was his brother, Robert Ferrars, who married Lucy. He says that he was trapped in his engagement with Lucy, "a woman he had long since ceased to love", and she broke the engagement to marry the now wealthy Robert. Edward asks Elinor to marry him, and she agrees. Edward becomes reconciled with his mother, who gives him ten thousand pounds. Edward and Elinor marry and move into the parsonage at Delaford. Still, Mrs. Ferrars tends to favour Robert and Lucy over Edward and Elinor.
Mr. Willoughby's patroness eventually gives him his inheritance, seeing that his marriage to a woman of good character has redeemed him. Willoughby realizes that marrying Marianne would have produced the same effect; thus, had he behaved honourably, he could have had both love and money and thus "his punishment was complete".
Over the next two years, Mrs. Dashwood, Marianne, and Margaret spend most of their time at Delaford. Marianne matures and decides to marry the Colonel even though she feels more respect than passion for him. However, after the marriage she realizes that she truly loves him. She and the Colonel set up house near Elinor and Edward, so the sisters and their husbands can visit each other often.
- Henry Dashwood: A wealthy gentleman who dies at the beginning of the story. The terms of his estate prevent him from leaving anything to his second wife and their children together. He asks John, his son by his first wife, to look after (meaning ensure the financial security of) his second wife and their three daughters.
- Mrs. Mary Dashwood: The second wife of Henry Dashwood, who is left in difficult financial straits by the death of her husband. She is 40 years old at the beginning of the book. Much like her daughter Marianne, she is also very emotive and often makes poor decisions based on emotion rather than reason.
- Elinor Dashwood: The sensible and reserved eldest daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Henry Dashwood. She is 19 years old at the beginning of the book. She becomes attached to Edward Ferrars, the brother-in-law of her elder half-brother, John. Always feeling a keen sense of responsibility to her family and friends, she places their welfare and interests above her own, and suppresses her own strong emotions in a way that leads others to think she is indifferent or cold-hearted.
- Marianne Dashwood: The romantically inclined and eagerly expressive second daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Henry Dashwood. She is 16 yrs old at the beginning of the book. She is the object of the attentions of Colonel Brandon and Mr. Willoughby. She is attracted to young, handsome, romantically spirited Willoughby and does not think much of the older, more reserved Colonel Brandon.
- Margaret Dashwood: The youngest daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Henry Dashwood. She is around the age of 12 at the beginning of the book. She is also romantic and well-tempered but not expected to be as clever as her sisters when she grows older.
- John Dashwood: The son of Henry Dashwood by his first wife. He is generally good-natured and charitable, but easily swayed by his less-likeable wife.
- Fanny Dashwood: The wife of John Dashwood, and sister to Edward and Robert Ferrars. She is vain, selfish, and snobby. She spoils her son Henry.
- Sir John Middleton: A distant relative of Mrs. Dashwood who, after the death of Henry Dashwood, invites her and her three daughters to live in a cottage on his property. Described as a wealthy, sporting man who served in the army with Colonel Brandon, he is very affable and keen to throw frequent parties, picnics, and other social gatherings to bring together the young people of their village. He and his mother-in-law, Mrs. Jennings, make a jolly, teasing, and gossipy pair.
- Lady Middleton: The genteel, but cold and reserved wife of Sir John Middleton, she is more quiet and introverted than her husband, and is primarily concerned with mothering her four spoiled children.
- Mrs. Jennings: Mother to Lady Middleton and Charlotte Palmer. A widow who has married off all of her children, she spends most of her time visiting her two daughters and their families, especially the Middletons. She and her son-in-law, Sir John Middleton, take an active interest in the romantic affairs of the young people around them and seek to encourage suitable matches, often to the particular chagrin of Elinor and Marianne.
- Edward Ferrars: The elder of Fanny Dashwood's two brothers. He forms an attachment to Elinor Dashwood. Years before meeting the Dashwoods, Ferrars proposed to Lucy Steele, the niece of his tutor. The engagement has been kept secret owing to the expectation that Ferrars' family would object to his marrying Miss Steele.
- Robert Ferrars: The younger brother of Edward Ferrars and Fanny Dashwood, he is most concerned about status, fashion, and his new barouche.
- Mrs. Ferrars: Fanny Dashwood and Edward and Robert Ferrars' mother. A bad-tempered, unsympathetic woman who embodies all the foibles demonstrated in Fanny and Robert's characteristics. She is determined that her sons should marry well.
- Colonel Brandon: A close friend of Sir John Middleton. In his youth, Brandon had fallen in love with his father's ward, but was prevented by his family from marrying her because she was intended for his older brother. He was sent into the military abroad to be away from her, and while gone, the girl suffered numerous misfortunes partly as a consequence of her unhappy marriage, finally dying penniless and disgraced, and with a natural (i.e., illegitimate) daughter, who becomes the ward of the Colonel. He is 35 years old at the beginning of the book.
- John Willoughby: A nephew of a neighbour of the Middletons, a dashing figure who charms Marianne and shares her artistic and cultural sensibilities.
- Charlotte Palmer: The daughter of Mrs. Jennings and the younger sister of Lady Middleton, Mrs. Palmer is jolly but empty-headed and laughs at inappropriate things, such as her husband's continual rudeness to her and to others.
- Mr. Palmer: The husband of Charlotte Palmer who is running for a seat in Parliament, but is idle and often rude.
- Lucy Steele: A young, distant relation of Mrs. Jennings, who has for some time been secretly engaged to Edward Ferrars. She assiduously cultivates the friendship with Elinor Dashwood and Mrs. John Dashwood. Limited in formal education and financial means, she is nonetheless attractive, clever, manipulative, and scheming (in modern terms, a "gold digger").
- Anne/Nancy Steele: Lucy Steele's elder, socially inept, and less clever sister.
- Miss Sophia Grey: A wealthy heiress who Mr. Willoughby marries in order to retain his comfortable lifestyle after he is disinherited by his aunt.
- Lord Morton: The father of Miss Morton.
- Miss Morton: A wealthy woman whom Mrs. Ferrars wants her eldest son, Edward, to marry.
- Mr. Pratt: An uncle of Lucy Steele.
- Eliza Williams: The ward of Col. Brandon, she is 15 years old and bore an illegitimate son to John Willoughby.