The opening chapter introduces Sir Walter Elliot and his immediate family to the reader. Sir Walter, baronet of Kellynch Hall, is a man for whom “vanity of person and situation” is everything (4). He reads only one book — the Baronetage, a record of English nobility — in which the Elliot family is listed as follows:
Walter Elliot, born March 1, 1760, married, July 15, 1784, Elizabeth, daughter of James Stevenson, Esq. of South Park, in the county of Gloucester; by which lady (who died 1800) he has issue Elizabeth, born June 1, 1785; Anne, born August 9, 1787; a still-born son, Nov. 5, 1789; Mary, born Nov 20, 1791. (3)
Lady Elliot, it appears, had been a “excellent woman” and wife, both more sensible and more amiable than Sir Walter (4). Since her untimely death thirteen years ago, Sir Walter has lived as a widower with his three daughters. The eldest daughter Elizabeth bears her mother’s name for good reason. Like Lady Elliot, she is a beautiful woman whose sensibilities conform to those of Sir Walter. As such, she has served as mistress of Kellynch Hall since her mother’s death. The opening chapter tells an unfortunate story of her past: several years ago, she expected an engagement to one William Walter Elliot, Esq., the heir presumptive to the Elliot baronetcy. For two consecutive years, Mr. Elliot was expected to visit Kellynch Hall to ask for Elizabeth’s hand. Instead, he chose to “purchase independence by uniting himself to a rich woman of inferior birth” (6). To this day, then, Elizabeth presides over Kellynch hall.
After Elizabeth, the two sisters Mary and Anne follow in order of their father’s preference. The youngest sister Mary has acquired some “artificial importance” through her favorable marriage to Charles Musgrove, the eldest child of the sympathetic and relatively wealthy Mr. and Mrs. Musgrove (5). In intellect and sensibilities, however, she remains inferior to Anne. In looks, too, she comes in last among the sisters, having “only reached the dignity of being ‘a fine girl’” (25). All in all, Mary is described as an agreeable woman of good humor, excepting her tendency to think herself a victim of sickness or neglect. As for Anne, her portrait is painted through her perceptions of the novel’s events as the story unfolds.
The Elliot family faces a financial quandary: despite Sir Walter’s income as a baronet, they have been living beyond their means. When Lady Elizabeth was still alive, Kellynch Hall was run with moderation and economy wherever possible. Since her death, however, Sir Walter has been unable to keep in check the spending that he feels is required of a baronet and thus far exceeds his income. Elizabeth has attempted to remedy the situation, but in vain. The Elliot debt has now accumulated to a critical point. Given that Sir Walter will never condescend to sell Kellynch Hall, what can possibly be done?
Two family friends, Mr. Shepherd and Lady Russell, are called upon for advice. Not wishing to pronounce the obvious but disagreeable recommendation for the Elliots to reduce their spending dramatically, Mr. Shepherd defers his judgment initially to Lady Russell. At first, Lady Russell attempts to convince Sir Walter to cut back the spending that he has taken for granted. But Sir Walter declares that he could not “live [without] the decencies even of a private gentleman” and that he would rather leave Kellynch hall (10). It thus becomes clear that the family has three options: move to London, to Bath, or to another house in the country, as the cost of living would be more feasible.
The most financially prudent option would be for the Elliots to move to the house in the country. But Lady Russell, in all her rationality and cultivation, has a high regard for “rank and consequence” and advises the Elliot family to move to the more elegant Bath (9). The house in the country would represent too far a fall from Kellynch Hall; at Bath, Sir Walter might be “important at comparatively little expense” (10). It is thus decided that the Elliots will move to Bath — without Anne having any real say in the matter. As the most rational member of the family and the most mindful of paying off the family debt expediently, Anne would have preferred drastic reductions at Kellynch Hall or the more dramatic move to a house in the country. Indeed, Anne differs from her good friend Lady Russell in that she has little regard for wealth or family per se. She has little say with her father and sister, however, and Lady Russell feels that her plans would demand too large a sacrifice of the Elliot respectability.
The above decided, Kellynch Hall must presently welcome a new tenant. The timing is fortuitous, as many navy officers will be returning to England with fortunes newly made at sea. Although Sir Walter expresses his aversion to navy officers — deeming them unworthy of Kellynch Hall both in birth and in appearance — Mr. Shepherd manages to convince him of their general respectability. One Admiral Croft, in particular, appears immediately afterwards as a promising candidate for tenant of Kellynch Hall. Mr. Shepherd assures Sir Walter that Admiral Croft is of a “gentleman’s family” and an important admiral with a considerable fortune (16). He is also married and without children, thus fulfilling the conditions for a good tenant. After a successful visit — Admiral Croft and Sir Walter humoring each other sympathetically — it is decided that the Crofts will have Kellynch Hall at Michaelmas (on September 29th).
The reader who turns to the first page of Persuasion is introduced immediately to a book within a book: Sir Walter’s favorite reading, the Baronetage, which probably refers to J. Debrett’s Baronetage of England. The book traces the family history of the Elliots of Kellynch Hall. It is later referred to appropriately as the “book of books,” as it contains the seeds of Persuasion (5). We learn basic bibliographic information — the death of Lady Elliot has left Sir Walter a widow, with three daughters. We also learn that Lady Elliot’s only son was stillborn. When we look back into the “seeds of time” — a Shakespearean metaphor — we find a seed that did not sprout (Macbeth I iii 58).
The seed that has failed to sprout leads eventually to problems for the Elliots (the episode with Mr. Elliot, mentioned in the fist chapter, returns to haunt the family later in the novel). In the opening chapters, however, the stillborn son is more emblematic of the troubles that plague an upper class titled family. The Elliots have been exceeding Sir Walter’s income, and much of the Kellynch estate has already been mortgaged. From a historical perspective, the problem is realistic, as an increasing number of the titled struggled with their finances. In the novel, the problem sets the plot in motion.
From the very outset, the narrator portrays Sir Walter (and to large extent Elizabeth) in an unequivocal manner: “Vanity was the beginning and the end of Sir Walter’s character; vanity of person and of situation” (4). Sir Walter is proud and self-important — and not without reason, as he is a handsome baronet. Thus when the Elliots decide to move, Bath is chosen because the Elliots “might be important at comparatively little expense” (10). In the opening chapters, as with the rest of the novel, the narrator rarely mentions how Sir Walter feels—much less what he thinks. His character remains static. As the critic Julia Prewitt Brown notes of this characterization, “Sir Walter is inelastic, implacable, conceptualized” (Brown 71).
The move away from Kellynch Hall, then, poses a conflict and existential dilemma for Sir Walter. On the one hand, the Baronetage states duly that he is the baronet of Kellynch Hall. On the other hand, he must give up the same social role voluntarily. Luckily, Mr. Shepherd negotiates a suitable compromise by arranging for the Crofts to rent Kellynch Hall. (The name Shepherd is appropriate, as he tends to the Elliots who seem as vulnerable and sheepish when it comes to leaving Kellynch). With the Crofts in Kellynch, Sir Walter will be able to save a degree of respectability by saying “I have let my house to Admiral Croft” (17). Nonetheless, the fact remains that the Elliots will no longer reside in Kellynch. As Brown suggests, “the portrayal of Sir Walter is a social portrait of the dislocation of role” (72). How does he cope with this dislocation?
Subsequent chapters reveal that Sir Walter and Elizabeth hold on adamantly to their original roles, despite the change of locale. Their primary concern becomes how to maintain the Elliot glory, or to hide the fact that it has been lost already—in search, as it were, of time past. In fact, almost all of the characters from the opening chapters continue to play their original roles. All except Anne. As the novel progresses, it becomes very clear that the free indirect discourse of the narrative speaks primarily “from” Anne’s point of view. It is the reader who will do Anne Elliot, whose “word had not weight,” her deserved justice (5).