The story revolves around Elinor and Marianne, two daughters of Mr. Dashwood by his second wife. They have a younger sister, Margaret, and an older half-brother named John. When their father dies, the family estate passes to John, and the Dashwood women are left in reduced circumstances. The novel follows the Dashwood sisters to their new home, a cottage on a distant relative's property, where they experience both romance and heartbreak. The contrast between the sisters' characters is eventually resolved as they each find love and lasting happiness. This leads some to believe that the book's title describes how Elinor and Marianne find a balance between sense and sensibility in life and love.
Austen wrote the first draft of Elinor and Marianne (later retitled Sense and Sensibility) c. 1795, when she was about 19 years old, in epistolary form. While she had written a great deal of short fiction in her teens, Elinor and Marianne was her first full-length novel. The plot revolves around a contrast between Elinor's sense and Marianne's emotionalism; the two sisters may have been loosely based on the author and her beloved elder sister, Cassandra, with Austen casting Cassandra as the restrained and well-judging sister and herself as the emotional one.