Persuasion takes place in England, beginning in the summer of 1814 and continuing over the course of about eight months. Twenty-seven-year-old Anne Elliot, overlooked by nearly everyone other than her friend and godmother Lady Russell, lives with her father—Sir Walter Elliot—and older, unmarried sister Elizabeth at the Elliott estate, Kellynch Hall. Her younger sister Mary is married to Charles Musgrove and lives nearby at his family's estate, Uppercross. A widower, the vain Sir Walter lives an extravagant life. During his annual trip to London he confesses to Elizabeth, his favored daughter, that they are in financial trouble.
Sir Walter reluctantly agrees to rent Kellynch Hall to Admiral and Mrs. Croft and subsequently moves to Bath to save money and face. Coincidentally Mrs. Croft is the sister of Captain Frederick Wentworth, to whom Anne was persuaded to break an engagement eight years before.
Wanting attention for her many imagined ailments, Mary invites Anne to visit her at Uppercross Cottage, after which Anne will stay with Lady Russell until they both travel to Bath for the winter.
Before their tenants arrive, Sir Walter and Elizabeth depart for Bath. Mrs. Clay, an intimate friend of Elizabeth's whose insinuating character Anne finds questionable, accompanies Sir Walter and Elizabeth. Anne stays with Lady Russell for a week.
When Lady Russell leaves, Anne goes to Uppercross where she stays for two months attending to her sister's complaints, but enjoying the company of the Musgroves and their large family. Soon after, the Crofts arrive at Kellynch Hall and call on the elder Musgroves; the Crofts' presence stirs Anne's emotions.
A week later news of Captain Frederick Wentworth's arrival at Kellynch Hall reaches Anne. When he is invited to dinner at the elder Musgroves, Anne tries to avoid him and stays home with her nephew, Charles Jr., who has been injured, while Mary and her husband dine at her in-laws'. The next morning Captain Wentworth calls on Mary, and he and Anne see each other for the first time since they parted eight years before.
During the next month Anne and Wentworth meet several times. Henrietta and Louisa Musgrove take interest in the captain, and Anne quietly observes their interactions. One day while Anne tends to Charles Jr., his younger brother Walter pesters her and ignores her directions. While Charles Hayter, a Musgrove cousin and suitor of Henrietta, distractedly tells Walter to heed Anne, Wentworth "rescues" her by lifting her nephew from her back.
During a walk in the country Anne overhears Louisa tell Wentworth that Anne had refused her brother Charles's proposal. Louisa's comments about Henrietta's fickleness and her admiration for the Crofts' relationship lead Wentworth to compliment Louisa on her strong character. Anne feels certain that he intends to marry Louisa. Shortly after Wentworth takes an impromptu trip to the seaside city of Lyme to visit a friend.
Inspired by Wentworth's praise of Lyme, Louisa organizes an outing there for herself, Henrietta, Anne, Charles, Wentworth, and Mary. They meet the Harvilles and Captain Benwick, Wentworth's naval friends, and enjoy the family's hospitality. While walking near the ocean, Anne and Wentworth notice a gentleman admire her. The group suspects he is Anne's cousin and Sir Walter's heir, William Elliot.
On their last visit to the Cobb (the harbor wall) Louisa falls and suffers a concussion. The only one thinking clearly, Anne directs the group to help Louisa, who stays with the Harvilles.
Henrietta, Anne, and Wentworth return to Uppercross. After informing the Musgroves of the accident, Wentworth returns immediately to Lyme. After a few days Anne encourages the Musgroves to go to Lyme during Louisa's convalescence. Anne returns to Lady Russell's. During a visit with the Crofts, Admiral Croft comments on Wentworth's strange way of wooing and expresses surprise that he hadn't already settled matters with Louisa. When Mary and Charles return from Lyme they argue over whether Captain Benwick is in love with Anne. Meanwhile, Wentworth leaves Lyme.
In January Anne and Lady Russell venture to Bath. Anne learns that her father and Elizabeth have reconciled with William Elliot. When he visits, he and Anne remember their Lyme encounter. They become acquainted; despite his charm Anne mistrusts him. Anne renews a friendship with her former classmate, Mrs. Smith, who is now a poor invalid living in rented rooms in Bath.
In February Louisa returns to Uppercross and announces her engagement to Captain Benwick. On a walk Anne meets Admiral Croft, now in Bath, who resolves to bring Wentworth to Bath. Wentworth arrives on his own, even before the invitation is sent, and Anne sees him in town. Her emotions are strong.
At a concert Anne begins a conversation with Captain Wentworth, who is happily surprised at the news of Louisa's engagement. Their guarded conversation reveals the possibility he still loves Anne. During the concert however, William Elliot sits next to her and interrupts the conversation. Captain Wentworth seems jealous and leaves.
The next day Anne visits Mrs. Smith and learns about William Elliot's unsavory past, which includes failing to have executed the will of Mrs. Smith's husband. Anne's suspicions about him are confirmed. When the Musgroves arrive in Bath, Anne devotes her time to them. At their hotel Anne sees Captain Wentworth, who mentions how long it has been since they were engaged. The next day Anne visits the Musgroves again, where Wentworth overhears her and Captain Harville discuss love and constancy. He guesses correctly that Anne's impassioned defense of women's constancy "when hope is gone" is meant for him. He confesses his love to Anne in a letter that he leaves for her, asking her to tell him "with a look" if she still loves him. Overwhelmed she leaves. Wentworth finds her in the street and, encouraged by Anne, proposes.