hen Mr. Dashwood dies, he leaves his Sussex estate Norland -undivided, as the law requires- to his first marriage son John. John's wife, Fanny, convinces him to deny, in the name of their only son Henry's inheritance, his widowed stepmother and her three daughters the generosity understood at pap's deathbed. When the heiress-in-law's brother Edward Ferrars visits, he proves a perfect, understanding gentleman mutually drawn to eldest daughter Elinor, but she's told mother Ferrars makes inheriting the vast family fortune conditional on marrying well. Once mother comes to terms with their impoverished status, she accepts country relative Sir John Middleton's offer to rent his cottage in Devonshire without even seeing it, and moves with only two servants, Thomas and Alice. Sir John insists on visits and his wife presents them to the county's best catch, rich widower Colonel Brandon, who shows interest in middle daughter Marianne, but she plays hard to get and thus falls -initially literally- for younger gentleman Willoughby.

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