The novel opens with Sir Walter Elliot indulging his snobbishness by once again taking up the Baronetage, an encyclopedia of the English nobility, to read his favorite entry: his own.
The Baronetage’s brief history of the Elliot family segues into today’s episode of Backstory Playhouse: Sir Walter is a widower with three daughters, Elizabeth the Favorite, Anne the Sensible, and Mary the Married. Guess which one will be our protagonist.
Anne takes after her now-dead, also-sensible mother, and is aided by her mother’s still-living, yes-she’s-sensible-too friend Lady Russell. This is great because it’s already clear that sense is a commodity in short supply in the Elliot household.
Also introduced (from afar, since he hasn’t shown up in person yet) is William Elliot, Sir presumptive, who will gain ownership of the Elliot estate once the current Sir kicks it (shorter inheritance laws in nineteenth-century England: no girls allowed).
More backstory: in fact, showing up in person at the Elliot estate wouldn’t be a good idea for young William, as he’s committed not one but two sins against the current regime. Not only did he turn down Elizabeth, he then went on to marry a woman who had a lot of money but no class, a cardinal sin for rank-obsessed Sir Walter.
Out of the backstory and into the present: a more immediate problem presses on Sir Walter, as he’s been running up the nineteenth-century equivalent of massive credit card debt, and he must figure out a way to "retrench" (1.20), to dial down his expensive lifestyle, before he goes bankrupt.