Persuasion begins in disappointment. As a girl of nineteen, Anne Elliot is advised by family friend Lady Russell to forego a seemingly imprudent match to young naval officer Frederick Wentworth as he has no money and no prospects of advancement. Afterwards, war with France gives him ample opportunity to advance himself. He quickly rises in rank and wealth while Anne is left to pine and wither at home.

Eight years later and her father Sir Walter Elliot, having been careless with his finances, is in serious danger of impoverishing his estate. He and his two unmarried daughters are forced to move to Bath, where they can live in the style to which he and his eldest daughter Elizabeth have become accustomed on a slightly smaller budget.  Consequently, they must rent out the family estate, Kellynch Hall.   An Admiral Croft and his wife seek out the estate. Mrs Croft is the sister of Captain Frederick Wentworth. The inevitable occurs: Anne is forced to meet and interact with the object of her disappointed hopes.

While Sir Walter and Elizabeth travel to Bath, Anne is left to tidy up household affairs at Kellynch and then join her younger sister Mary (married to Charles Musgrove) at Uppercross. As Uppercross is close by Kellynch, a great intimacy grows between Charles's two marriageable sisters, Henrietta and Louisa, and Captain Wentworth. Henrietta, however, has a previous attachment to a young clergyman, Charles Hayter. This leaves Louisa free to pursue Captain Wentworth. And pursue him she does. Playing up to his compliments that she is strong-willed (a characteristic in which he believes she contrasts favourably with Anne), she becomes increasingly headstrong.

Captain Wentworth declares his intention to visit a navy friend, Captain Harville, in Lyme Regis; the Uppercross young people, including Anne, join him. Louisa ends up injuring herself in a display of foolish obstinancy for which Captain Wentworth blames himself. Realising that others believe there is a serious attachment between them,  Captain Wentworth is forced to think of himself as engaged to Louisa. But by now he has grown to value Anne properly.  He comes to realise that she is far from weak, and indeed is the most reliable, intelligent creature of his acquaintance. 

After regaining consciousness, Louisa falls in love with the young Captain Benwick, who is staying with the Harvilles. Frederick is now free from any obligation towards her. He follows Anne to Bath, where he discovers a rival: Mr. William Elliot, the heir to Kellynch Hall (Sir Walter having no surviving male issue), is pursuing Anne for his own ends.  Anne's heart, however, has always had only one object. After a series of misunderstandings, she and Captain Wentworth become engaged and marry.