More than seven years prior to the events in the novel, Anne Elliot fell in love with a handsome and ambitious, but poor, young naval officer, Frederick Wentworth. The Elliots, led by Sir Walter, Anne's father and lord of the family estate, were dissatisfied with her choice, feeling he was not distinguished enough for their family; her older friend and mentor, Lady Russell, acting in place of Anne's deceased mother, persuaded her to break off the match. Now age 27 and considered a spinster, Anne re-encounters her former fiancé as he associates with the Musgrove family.
Now Wentworth is an 'early' captain —and wealthy— due to his warfare successes in the Royal Navy, including his capture of prize-money (enemy) shipping; but he still harbors enmity towards Anne for her rejection of him. Meanwhile, the self-interested machinations of Anne's father, her older sister Elizabeth, Elizabeth's friend Mrs. Clay, and William Elliot, Anne's cousin and her father's heir, constitute important subplots.