Anne is the overlooked middle daughter of a vain and extravagant baronet, Sir Walter Elliot of Kellynch Hall. Unique among Jane Austen heroines, she is 27 years old and seemingly a confirmed spinster. Her mother is dead; her father and older sister are vain and selfish; and her younger sister is a manipulative hypochondriac but not quite so beyond Anne's influence as her elder sister Elizabeth. With few to appreciate her sweet nature and refined, elegant mind, Anne is somewhat isolated, living in a narrow social sphere where she "was nobody with either father or sister; her word had no weight; her convenience was always to give way; she was only Anne."
Lady Russell, her mother's best friend, is her only real confidante; and although she means well and usually shows good judgment, she tends to overvalue social position when forming her opinions of others. This prejudice has caused Anne great sorrow: eight years before, Lady Russell persuaded her to break off an engagement with an ambitious, brilliant young naval officer named Frederick Wentworth – a man whom she loved passionately – on the grounds that his poverty, lack of social rank and connections made him an unsuitable choice.
Anne has never fully recovered from the heartbreak, and begins Persuasion as a sad figure, disregarded by her father, "wretchedly altered" in looks, looked down upon by her elder sister and resigned to an empty life. When Captain Wentworth, now grown rich from prize money, returns from the wars to visit the neighborhood, Anne is at first pained; however, his presence gradually sets her life in motion again.