For many years, Henry Dashwood and his family had lived at Norland Park and cared for its owner, Henry's aged uncle. On the old man's death, Henry inherited the estate. He had always expected that he would be free to leave it, in turn, to be shared among his wife and three daughters. John, his son by a previous marriage, was amply provided for. His mother had left him a large estate, and his wife further increased his wealth with a handsome dowry.
However, when the old man's will was read, Henry found to his dismay that he would not be able to dispose of the estate. The uncle had been wooed by John's young son and wished to procure the estate for him by tying it up in favor of "his son and his son's son." This meant that Henry's wife and daughters could inherit only such money as he could save for them, which turned out to be 10,000 pounds.
Henry survived his uncle by only one year. When he was dying, he sent for John and begged him, "with all the strength and urgency which illness could command," to look after his stepmother and stepsisters. Moved by this plea, John promised "to do everything in his power to make them comfortable." One thousand pounds for each daughter would be fair, he decided, and would leave them quite comfortable.
John was "rather cold-hearted, and rather selfish." He had married young and his wife had great influence over him. She was "a strong caricature of himself; more narrow-minded and selfish."
Immediately after Henry's funeral, without notice, Mrs. John Dashwood moved into Norland Park with her small son and her servants. This insensitive behavior was bitterly resented by Mrs. Dashwood, who thought of leaving Norland Park at once. Elinor prudently restrained her.
Mrs. Dashwood and her daughters were a devoted family. Elinor, nineteen, was sufficiently mature and well-balanced "to be the counsellor of her mother," a good-hearted woman who tended to be imprudent. Marianne, though clever and sensible, was extreme in her emotions. She was "generous, amiable, interesting: . . . everything but prudent" and thus much resembled her mother. Margaret, thirteen, was an immature girl who took after Marianne rather than Elinor.
Marianne and her mother "gave themselves up wholly to their sorrow," encouraging each other "in the violence of their affliction." Elinor suffered too, but she managed to "receive her sister-in-law on her arrival, and treat her with proper attention." She prevailed on her mother and Marianne to do likewise.
In this opening chapter, Austen sets the scene with her usual clarity and precision. The reader meets most of the leading characters and is given insight into their personalities and temperaments. It is obvious that this is to be a story of opposing temperaments — Marianne's excessive "sensibility" contrasted to Elinor's calm common sense.
The reader is plunged into a world which is socially and linguistically very different from the world of today. Austen is writing a "comedy of manners," or "domestic comedy." As a novelist, she narrows her outlook to the people of her own class — country gentlemen and their families whose main concern is their social status and the comforts it brings them. Owning property is essential to social status, which explains Henry Dashwood's deep disappointment when he finds that he cannot bequeath Norland Park to his wife and daughters. Also, the meager fortune with which the girls are provided makes their prospects for a good marriage rather dismal.