Biographers tell us that Jane Austen (1775 – 1817) was diffident about her writing, a modest lady untainted by ambition who hid her scrawled pages when anyone came into the room. In a preface to Persuasion Jane Austen’s brother Henry Austen wrote:
“Short and easy will be the task of her biographer. A life of usefulness, literature and religion was not by any means a life of event.”
Without a doubt Pride and Prejudice is Austen’s sunniest and most popular novel. She herself referred to it as “light, bright and sparkling.” So precise and accurate is the characterization in Pride and Prejudice that in it readers witness and confront their own anguish and their own dreams. Like Shakespeare’s characters, both central and minor, Austen’s people are absolutely consistent in mode of speech and consciousness, and each is intensely different from the others. Arguably, no peripheral character in fiction is as authentically appealing as Mr. Bennet, father of Jane, Elizabeth, Mary, Kitty and Lydia and husband to the egregiously foolish Mrs. Bennet – a man whom Austen has imbued with her own signature sense of irony. His dry wit and self-possession in the face of his wife’s ridiculous hysteria is relentless. Bennet’s detached attitude punctuated by bursts of sarcastic humor is one of the novel’s many achievements. Austen captures Mr. Bennet and at the same time notes the value of playing the cards one is dealt:
“To his wife he was very little otherwise indebted, than as her ignorance and folly had contributed to his amusement. This is not the sort of happiness which a man would in general wish to owe his wife; but where other powers of entertainment are wanting, the true philosopher will derive benefit from such as are given.”
As much as I love Pride and Prejudice, my favorite among the six novels is Persuasion, a work that along with Northanger Abbey was published posthumously. While replete with the deep irony, scathing wit, the droll and finely drawn characters of Austen’s other novels, it is underpinned with a decidedly greater maturity and wisdom. Her assured narrative voice anchors and sustains the novel to its very final word. And Austen’s unique and enviable prose cadence, that pleasurable and deliberate ordering of her words and phrases, is present in Persuasion as in the earlier works.
Like all successful fiction writers, Austen wrote about what she knew. Yet it’s important to understand that while her narratives flowed directly from her experience, her experience was somewhat narrow and limited. Much of her fiction, to be sure, flowed equally from her vibrant imagination. Imagine a smooth flow of narrative deriving from her own confined reality, but a flow that is interrupted by jets of alternate possibilities originating in her imagination. Austen’s genius was that used observed moments from her life, but then repositioned and recharged them.
In a much-repeated anecdote, Jane Austen once wrote a letter to her niece Anna – a youngster who aspired to become a novelist – giving advice that has become famous in the annals of literary history: “Three or four families in a country village is the very thing to work on.” We know that the restricted scope such as she suggested – a small group of people interacting with one another over time – worked miraculously for Jane.
The three families at center stage in Persuasion are the Elliots, the Musgroves, and the Wentworth-Crofts. While like the other novels it is about the maturing through trial of a young woman, Persuasion does not open with the spotlight on 26-year-old Anne Elliot. Instead the first pages are devoted to her father and his obsessive vanity about his lineage as a baronet and his contempt for those he considers beneath him. Austen’s talent for satire reaches a pinnacle in her depiction of Sir Walter Elliot, a pompous man who blatantly values his own looks while obsessing over the horror of “unattractive persons.” A true connoisseur of human folly, Austen goes after her target: “Few women could think more of their personal appearance than he did…He considered the blessing of beauty as inferior only to the blessing of a baronetcy…”
Before the end of the first chapter it is established that Anne is from a privileged class but is not appreciated. She is a “nobody;” “only Anne,” to her family. Yet Anne is unmistakably Austen’s protagonist. It is through her ears, eyes and mind that we are made to care about what is happening as the author launches her story. While other characters don’t seem to be very aware of her, she is very much aware of everyone else, and she perceives what is happening to them when they are ignorant of it themselves. Lady Russell, a close friend to Anne’s deceased mother, acts as Anne’s godmother, and it is she alone who appears to apprehend Anne’s worth. Anne’s sisters, Elizabeth and Mary, are monsters of selfishness who ignore her shamefully or use her shamelessly.
The high social rank of the Elliot family has failed to guarantee its financial stability. Sir Walter’s haughty refusal to economize has resulted in an accumulation of debt, and now the family must retrench. In order to live at less expense, they must let Kellynch, their Somerset manor house and estate. The subtext to all this is that Anne’s economic position is uncertain and that all she has, in fact, is her worth in the marriage market.
At first Sir Walter refuses to consider letting his home to an admiral, believing navy men to be persons beneath him, persons of obscure birth and unmerited distinction. Nonetheless, he reluctantly agrees to rent Kellynch to the Crofts, a retire admiral and his wife.
Perhaps because she limits her scope to three or four families, Jane Austen’s use of coincidence is usually credible. Consequently, when Mrs. Croft’s brother turns out to be navel Captain Frederick Wentworth, the man to whom Anne was engaged at age 19, readers accept that fact as plausible. We learn that Anne had loved Wentworth intensely, considering him brilliant, fearless, warm and witty. Lady Russell, however, counseled Anne to refuse Wentworth on the grounds that he was,
“…a young man who had nothing but himself to recommend him and no hopes of attaining influence, but in the chances of a most uncertain profession, and no connections to secure even his farther rise in that profession.”
Lady Russell’s sway was powerful, and out of deference to the older woman’s purported wisdom and authority, Anne obeyed her. To be sure, “Persuasion” the title of the book, speaks to Lady Russell’s ability to change Anne’s young mind and to the consequences of the “persuasion.”
Shortly after Anne’s breakup with Wentworth, Lady Russell proves to be a woman of limited vision who expects Anne to “settle” in terms of marriage. She expresses the wish that Anne marry the mediocre Charles Musgrove (whom Anne’s younger sister, Mary, eventually weds). Lady Russell advocates for him because of his property and its proximity to Kellynch, his “general importance, good character and appearance.” The word “love” is not in her vocabulary.
When Anne learns that Mrs. Croft is Wentworth’s sister, she dreads the inevitable moment when they will meet for the first time since their engagement was dissolved. Meanwhile with her father and sister, Elizabeth, moved to a flat in Bath, Anne has gone to stay with her younger sister, Mary, who is married to the aforementioned Charles Musgrove and has two young sons. Austen’s rendering of Mary, a peripheral but important character, is masterful. Deficient in understanding and temper, possessing “no resources for solitude,” Mary apparently inherited from her father the Elliot self-important gene. She is a self-dramatizing young woman who thinks highly of the importance of her own feelings. Austen lets us in on the joke of her selfishness, but her function as a character is not simply comic. She serves as a perfect foil to showcase Anne’s restraint, patience and gentleness – even what Austen refers to as “her forced cheerfulness.”
In the course of her stay with Mary and Charles, Anne goes frequently to Uppercross, the neighboring manor house to visit Mary’s in-laws. Charles’s sisters, Louisa and Henrietta Musgrove are typically provincial young women. Both are hearty and high-spirited, and both are self-centered egotists who barely listen to any concerns but their own. Neither seems to care about the necessity of letting Kellynch, leaving Anne homeless. Anne’s first visit to the Musgroves after moving to Mary’s home is an eye-opener, a lesson “in the art of knowing our own nothingness beyond our own circle.” Louisa and Henrietta, who have made Captain Wentworth’s acquaintance, make every effort to impress him. They immerse themselves in the Navel Lists, a publication filled with information about British ships and who currently sails on them. In spite of this, never once does the discerning reader worry that Louisa or Henrietta will undermine the Anne-Wentworth relationship.
Anne and Wentworth meet for the first time in some seven years when he joins the Musgrove women and Anne for a country walk. They struggle to keep feelings in check, and for both of these self-disciplined characters, composure trumps overt agitation. Readers become aware of the oblique communication that immediately begins flowing between Anne and Wentworth. No matter the topic he initiates and good-naturedly prolongs with the others, Anne is lurking at the edges of Frederick’s perception.
In contrast to the Musgroves, the Crofts exude a rare generosity of spirit. Neither Admiral Croft nor Wentworth’s sister is pretentious or proud, but both are honest and frank. Unlike Mrs. Musgrove, Mrs. Croft is not a shrinking violet. Her husband’s invariable soulmate, Mrs.Croft comments:
“…nothing can exceed the accommodations of a man of war…when you come to a frigate, of course, you are more confined – though any reasonable woman may be perfectly happy in one of them, and I can safely say that the happiest part of my life has been spent on board ship…while we were together there was nothing to be feared.”
Not surprisingly, Anne and Wentworth are often thrown together at the same social gatherings either at the Musgrove’s or the Croft’s. Austen
relates the mutual agony they endure at a gathering at the Musgroves:
“They had no conversation together, no intercourse but what the commonest civility required. Once so much to each other! Now nothing! There had been a time, when of all of the large party now filling the drawing-room at Uppercross, they would have found it most difficult to cease to speak to one another…there could have been no two hearts so open, no tastes so similar, no feelings so in unison, no countenances so beloved.”
It becomes evident to him that that Anne’s “mistake” in rejecting him has conferred on her the role of maiden aunt, a condition that decidedly does not agree with her. It becomes apparent to her that resentment lingers in Wentworth. Yet subtlety but surely Austen encourages us to hope for a reconciliation between Anne and her captain. They are, to be sure, reassessing each other – listening attentively to each other’s general conversation, observing each other’s actions, and scrutinizing even the smallest gestures.
It’s impossible to overstate the role of the navy in Persuasion’s plot. At the close of the eighteenth century the navy was one of the few institutions through which Englishmen of humble birth could utilize a combination of merit and luck to gain financial footing and social privilege. Trade, at that time, was still considered vulgar. The navy afforded Frederick Wentworth the opportunity to earn “rewards” (money gained from capturing enemy ships during war and selling their booty). During the years of separation from Anne he has proved Lady Russell wrong, becoming not only financially solvent but also gaining confidence, and earning respect as a navel commander. Frederick is an esteemed member of the sea-faring community who stays in touch with other navel officers between tours of duty.
Residing in the resort town of Lyme Regis are two officer friends of Wentworth’s, the Captains Harville and Benwick. Frederick soon leads a contingent of various Musgroves – a group that includes Anne – on a pleasure trip to Lyme to visit his friends.
In an intensely dramatic scene – certainly one of the novel’s most memorable – Louisa Musgrove is gravely injured while the group is walking the beach at Lyme. Austen has established Louisa as a silly girl, infatuated with the handsome Captain Wentworth. So we are not completely surprised when, in attempt to impress him, she jumps from the Cobb wall. The nearly fatal blow to her head yields a great deal of blood and renders her unconscious.
The event captures our attention on two levels. Naturally, we focus on Louisa’s condition and treatment, and we are also engaged by the dynamics between Anne and Wentworth. Anne’s reaction to the mishap demonstrates “all the strength and zeal and thought” of which she is capable in a crisis. Her superior judgment in sending the appropriate person for a doctor, and her actions aimed at keeping the victim alive impress Wentworth. Indeed, the disastrous fall is the spark that re-ignites Wentworth’s passion. At this moment he recognizes that his love for Anne has never waned.
Readers feel gratified because Austen’s powerless heroine has taken charge. Suddenly Anne becomes the center of the group to which she has for so long been marginal.
During the time the story is set in Lyme, Austen weaves into her work the thread of a subplot when a Mr. Eliot – a distant cousin to Anne and heir to her father’s estate – makes an appearance. Anne recognizes this young man whom the meddling Lady Russell will later try to persuade her to marry. Anne wisely sees through his pretentions and is convinced that a union with him would be nothing less than a repeat of her mother’s mistake in marrying Sir Walter Eliot.
As the plot unfolds, the action shifts to the Somerset resort town of Bath. Sometimes described as a “golden city” because of the prevalence of resplendent stones in its buildings, Bath occupies an ancient Roman site. According to writer and critic, Carol Shields,
“The city glowed of newness, with history, with harmonious architecture, with the positive and curative effects of its hot springs, with optimism and with gentility.”
Shields points out that dinners, dances, card parties and chance encounters in the shopping streets brought drama to every day life. Sir Walter has beckoned Anne to join him and Elizabeth in their flat, and, predictably, Anne finds Bath uncongenial, “with its sharp social distinctions and fine gradations of who stays where and who appears with whom.” Her father and sister, of course, relish life at Bath. The town is fertile ground for a connoisseur of human folly such as Austen.
But because Wentworth – along with the captains Harville and Benwick – turns up in Bath, Anne’s spirits lift. By this time, Wentworth is clearly besotted with Anne and vice versa. Still, readers cannot breathe easily since misunderstandings concerning Anne’s affection for young Mr. Elliot punctuate events. Also in Bath is Lady Russell, whose petty behavior persists. For example, she tries to keep Wentworth’s presence in Bath a secret from Anne. Standing in the same room with Anne and looking out a window into rooms in a building across the street, rather than acknowledge that she sees Wentworth, she pretends that she is observing the “drawing-room curtains.” Austen’s rendering of Lady Russell, a minor but decidedly pivotal character is another instance of the novel’s mastery.
When Anne and Frederick meet, we observe thrilling moments of a new and affecting intensity between them. The occasions are les dramatic than the accident at Lyme, but they are nonetheless telling. Anne is quietly eloquent and companionable in her conversations with him, while Frederick appreciates her every word. Anne, encouraged by the indicators in his demeanor, asserts herself to restore their relationship. Austen remarks that Anne, with bright eyes and glowing cheeks, has regained the power to speak, act, and be joyful.
In another of the novel’s unforgettable scenes, Anne says what she wants to say on the subject of constancy. She communicates by indirection in a conversation with Captain Harville, saying in a courteous and deferential manner, that a woman’s feelings are more tender than a man’s, more capable of enduring. The conversation takes place in a room full of people including Wentworth who, sitting nearby at a table writing a letter, hears every word. He picks up his pen again and writes to Anne, pleading his love and assuring her that his love has not diminished even after eight years. Anne reads the letter, and what follows is a sequence of glances given, received, of understandings reached not directly but through a look, a gesture, and the unspoken subtext of al that has been said aloud.
The plot’s happy resolution is quintessential Jane Austen – the lovers are re-united and a wedding takes place. But unlike the heroines in Austen’s earlier books, Anne does not receive a landed estate or a titled husband. She will never be mistress of Kellynch, and Wentworth’s profession does entail the threat of absence and loss.
Though a tenor of regret as well as an undertow of discouragement resonate through the first portions of the novel, the work is, on the whole, affirming and uplifting. The opportunity to become acquainted with Anne is life-enhancing. Readers encounter in her true decency – that is, a concern for the happiness of others. And because the narrative is filtered through the heroine’s consciousness (to a greater degree than in any of Austen’s previous books), we get to know an exemplary human being – one of ready sympathies, discriminating responses, careful judgments, and flashes of amused self-awareness.
In any consideration of serious fiction, readers must ask what truths the work illuminates. In other words, what are the thematic underpinnings to the narrative? In some ways Persuasion is a variation on well-established insights from Austen’s earlier novels – humans are resilient; pretentiousness, pomposity, and sentimentality are deplorable; and position in society or wealth does not indicate human worth. Among the Austen books, Persuasion is distinctive for the light it sheds on the sensual power of deferred love, and on the notion that advice is as good or as bad as the event decides.