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Henry Dashwood, his second wife, and their three daughters live for many years with Henry's wealthy bachelor uncle. That uncle decides, in late life, to will the use and income only of his property first to Henry, then to Henry's first son John Dashwood (by his first marriage), so that the property should pass intact to John's three-year-old son Harry. The uncle dies, but Henry lives just a year after that and he is unable in such short time to save enough money for his wife Mrs Dashwood, and their daughters, Elinor, Marianne and Margaret, who are left only a small income. On his deathbed, Mr Henry Dashwood extracts a promise from his son John to take care of his half-sisters. But before Henry is long in the grave, John's greedy wife, Fanny, persuades her husband to renege on the promise, appealing to his concerns about diminishing his own son Harry's inheritance despite the fact that John is independently wealthy thanks to his inheritance from his mother and his wife's dowry. Henry Dashwood's love for his second family is also used by Fanny to arouse her husband's jealousy and convince him not to help his sisters economically.
John and Fanny immediately move in as the new owners of Norland, while the Dashwood women are treated as unwelcome guests by a spiteful Fanny. Mrs Dashwood seeks somewhere else to live. In the meantime, Fanny's brother, Edward Ferrars visits Norland and soon forms an attachment with Elinor. Fanny disapproves of the match and offends Mrs Dashwood by implying that Elinor must be motivated by his expectations of coming into money.
Mrs Dashwood moves her family to Barton Cottage in Devonshire, near the home of her cousin, Sir John Middleton. Their new home is modest, but they are warmly received by Sir John and welcomed into local society, meeting his wife, Lady Middleton, his mother-in-law, the garrulous but well-meaning Mrs Jennings, and his friend, Colonel Brandon. Colonel Brandon is attracted to Marianne, and Mrs Jennings teases them about it. Marianne is not pleased, as she considers the thirty-five-year-old Colonel Brandon an old bachelor, incapable of falling in love or inspiring love in anyone.
A 19th-century illustration by Hugh Thomson showing Willoughby cutting a lock of Marianne's hair
While out for a walk, Marianne gets caught in the rain, slips, and sprains her ankle. The dashing John Willoughby sees the accident and assists her, picking her up and carrying her back to her home. After his rescue of her, Marianne quickly comes to admire his good looks and his similar tastes in poetry, music, art, and love. His attentions, and Marianne's behavior, lead Elinor and Mrs Dashwood to suspect that the couple are secretly engaged. Elinor cautions Marianne against her unguarded conduct, but Marianne refuses to check her emotions. Willoughby engages in several intimate activities with Marianne, including taking her to see the home he expects to inherit one day and obtaining a lock of her hair. When an engagement, or at least the announcement of one, seems imminent, Mr Willoughby informs the Dashwoods that his aunt, upon whom he is financially dependent, is sending him to London on business, indefinitely. Marianne is distraught and abandons herself to her sorrow.
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