Persuasion by Jane Austen

“Sir Walter Elliot, of Kellynch-hall, in Somersetshire, was a man who, for his own amusement, never took up any book but the Baronetage; there he found occupation for an idle hours, and consolation in a distressed one ……”

Persuasion was the only major Austen novel that I had not read, so I was thrilled when Heidi at Literary Adventures Along the Brandywine announced her read-along.  I wasn’t expecting to enjoy the novel quite as much as Pride and Prejudice, one of my favourites, but I’d heard enough positive reviews to whet my curiousity. And so I plunged in.

Anne Elliot is one of three daughters of Sir Walter Elliot, a vain baronet who is obsessed with the peerage.  While her sister, Elizabeth, is somewhat bossy, and Mary proves a proud, yet questionable, invalid, Anne shows a quiet reserve with more than average good sense and judgement.  Eight years ago, her engagement to Captain Frederick Wentworth was almost certain, but without a mother for guidance, and influenced by a respected friend of the family, Lady Russell, she broke off the engagement with a deep regret.

Manor House, Somersetshire (Halsway Manor)
source Wikipedia

Now, eight years later, Anne is confronted with a number of upheavals in her life. Not only does she and her family have to leave their ancestral home, Kellynch-hall, because of reduced finances, but Captain Wentworth has returned, and to further complicate matters, his sister and her husband are the new tenants of Kellynch-hall.  The blows would have reduced a weaker woman to despondency, but Anne is not only resourceful, she has learned to suffer life’s troughs with resilience, and her positive attitude brings her through the stormy seas.

Initially, Captain Wentworth is all resentment and cool responses, but gradually, as he sees Anne’s quiet sacrifices, calm demeanour, and strength of character, his acrimony softens towards her.  Yet, at the same time, he appears to be playing the eligible bachelor, and it is uncertain as to which woman he will chose to be Mrs. Wenworth.  Both of Anne’s sisters-in-law, Henrietta and Louisa, vie for the title and Anne must watch the perceived courtships with an uneasy mind.  A near-tragedy causes introspection in more hearts than one, Mr. Eliot, Anne’s cousin and heir to Kellynch, enters the picture to further obscure the matters of courtship, but the final culmination exemplifies that a steadfast love is strengthened by misfortune and time, and the past lovers reunite in a now more matured and seasoned alliance.

Lyme Regis

Persuasion is a tale of new beginnings and second chances, not only for Anne and Wentworth, but for the characters surrounding them. Anne’s family, because of their financial straits, must begin a new life in Bath; both the Musgrove girls will be looking forward to the start of their married lives; and even Mrs. Smith, who has found herself in poverty after her husband’s death, is given a second chance at the end of the book as, with help from Wentworth, she recovers money from her husband’s estate that will help her to live more comfortably.

While Austen, as per her usual method, allows the reader to examine certain segments of society, in this book especially, she seems to be highlighting the movements between the social classes, either by marriage or by economic necessity.  Within Anne’s family, we not only have the family as a whole dropping in perceived standing by the lack of money to maintain their position at Kellynch, we also have the numerous characters dealing with the descent with different outlooks.  Sir Walter is obsessed with his Baronetage book and the importance of his place within the realm of society.  At first, he employs denial as to their new position, but thanks to a rather blind self-importance, is able to be persuaded to accept their new situation as if nothing has practically changed.  Anne’s sister, Elizabeth, too, acts as if nothing has altered, yet you can see at certain points in the novel that she is aware of the disadvantage of their new situation and that they must have a heightened awareness of appearance to maintain the respect and dignity that they view as a societal necessity.  Anne does not seem to be bothered by the family’s reduced circumstances, as position to her comes secondary to character and honesty and integrity.  In the old governess, Mrs. Smith we can examine what has come from her rise in stature upon her marriage, and then her subsequent fall upon her husband’s death when she finds herself in financial troubles.  Finally, cousin William Elliot falls from his seat of grace with his scandalous behaviour at the end of the novel.

Pulteny Bridge, Bath
18th century
source Wikipedia

We are given the title of Persuasion for the book, yet Austen did not choose this title; instead her beloved brother, Henry, gave the book its name, as it was published posthumously, and there is no indication of what Austen’s preferred title would have been.  Cassandra Austen, Jane’s older sister, reportedly said that a name for this novel had been discussed, and the most likely title was “The Elliots,” but as Austen passed away before selecting a definitive title, no one will know for certain her final choice. Nevertheless the word “persuasion”, or a derivative of it, occurs approximately 30 times in the novel, a good indication that it is one of the main themes.  Yet as I finished the novel, what metamorphosed out the “persuasion” was the stronger theme of duty.  While Wentworth still appears to be disgruntled by Anne’s choice to follow her family’s wishes in breaking off their engagement eight years before, she however appears to have a different sentiment.  At the end of the novel, Anne concludes:

“I have been thinking over the past, and trying impartially to judge of the right and wrong, I mean with regard to myself; and I must believe that I was right, much as I suffered from it, that I was perfectly right in being guided by the friend whom you will love better than you do now.  To me, she was in the place of a parent.  Do not mistake me, however.  I am not sayng that she did not err in her advice.  It was, perhaps, one of those cases in which advice is good or bad only as the event decides; and for myself, I certainly never should, in any circumstance of tolerable similarity, give such advice.  But I mean, that I was right in submitting to her, and that if I had done otherwise, I should have suffered more in continuing the engagement than I did even in giving it up, because I should have suffered in my conscience.   I have now, as far as such a sentiment is allowable in human nature, nothing to reproach myself with; and if I mistake not, a strong sense of duty is no bad part of a woman’s portion.”

In the book Anne is consistently dutiful, to her friend, Mrs. Smith, to her family and, more importantly, to her own conscience; and so we learn that a strong sense of duty and obedience to it is more crucial than any personal inclinations or aspirations.

Sandhill Park, Somerset (1829)
J.P. Neale/W. Taylor
source Wikipedia

Persuasion deviates from Austen’s usual style and content.  By having a hero without ties to nobility, Austen explores in depth an area of society that had to date been given only a cursory treatment by her. Anne, as an older heroine, is presented in a new way; the reader learns of her character not necessarily through how she actually behaves, but more through her silence and by seeing her in contrast to the intensely flawed people around her. Contrary to other Austen novels, the romance develops almost in isolation, as the characters hold little conversation with each other until the end of the novel.  While the novel was interesting for these new features, I felt it to be weaker than Austen’s previous novels, lacking a certain plausibility at times and a solid cohesiveness.  As she was writing Persuasion, Austen was ill with the disease that would eventually kill her, and because of this fact, her usual detailed pattern of revision was not completed; in this light, the diminished quality of the novel can certainly be understood.  However, while not shining with her usual brilliance, Austen still produced a jewel in its own right, and perhaps more intriguing because of its flaws, as these flaws contribute to its uniqueness.  As the character of Anne experiences a new beginning in Persuasion, so does the novel indeed appear to symbolize a new beginning by Austen, this beginning sadly cut short due to her untimely death.

 

Further reading:

 

19 thoughts on “Persuasion by Jane Austen

  1. Although as you say, Jane Austen could not do much revision on this book, it's interesting to see how she rewrote the ending. It became much stronger and more memorable.

  2. That's certainly true, Lory, good point. I did have the original two chapters to read and compare, but I didn't talk about this issue in my review. I left other issues out too, that would have been interesting to explore; there is just so much to analyze and discuss with Austen that my review could have easily been three times as long. At least it will give me more topics to explore on a re-read. 🙂

  3. This is such a good review! 🙂

    I remember liking Persuasion, but this was before I re-discovered Austen (spent a large chunk of my life hating her and not quite getting it all). Must re-read soon 🙂

  4. I just finished Persuasion too! I agree with your that it's not as refined as other Austen novels, but I didn't know that it was her last book and that she didn't even choose the title. Were you rooting for Anne to be reunited with Captain Wentworth?

  5. Thanks for the compliment, Jason. 🙂 I'm sure you'll have alot to say! I hardly touched on the deeper aspects of Anne and Wentworth's characters. For some reason, for this read-along I had little to say as I was reading and tons to say when it was all over. Some books are like that, I guess. They have to percolate for awhile before they come alive.

  6. Thanks so much, O. I had your experience when I read Northanger Abbey ….. I disliked it and wondered what the purpose was, but now that I'm more familiar with the background of it, I think I'll enjoy it more with a second read.

  7. I had no idea that you were reading it too!

    Hmm ….. because I felt the plot development awkward between the two of them, I wasn't sure what I was rooting for. Wentworth's "playing the field" with many of the other female characters in the novel, to punish Anne, bothered me, and I didn't see any specific occurrence that explained or mended this flaw in his character. And with Anne, while I think I understood the type of character Austen was trying to produce, Anne was left rather flat and uninteresting. I really loved how Austen made this type of character the heroine —— someone quiet and respectable and solid —- but I thought the presentation could have given Anne more depth and therefore engaged the reader more stronger towards her. As for matches, honestly, I thought Anne would have been a perfect match for Charles, her brother-in-law. He wasn't the cleverest cookie in the cookie tin, but he was kind and dependable and even funny in his own way. I quite liked him. What about you? What did you think?

  8. I enjoyed your review, particularly the part about the title and how it relates to the themes of the book.

    I remember the first time I read this sentence, almost feeling like I had to do a double-take:
    "But I mean, that I was right in submitting to her, and that if I had done otherwise, I should have suffered more in continuing the engagement than I did even in giving it up, because I should have suffered in my conscience."

    As a teen at the time, this notion of being able to recognize a parent/mentor's advice as being wrong but still feeling you were right in following it was something as foreign to my 1970's mentality as anything could be. But I do think it is at the heart of what makes me and so many readers admire Anne so much.

  9. Well, you pretty much covered all the bases here, covering a lot of similar ground that would have likely found its way into my review but have done it with an eloquence and sophistication that I cannot even hope to possibly achieve. I'm not just saying this to gain favor with you or anything of that sort, just being honest.

    My write-up will be pedestrian at best so I'll just direct others to yours instead.

  10. You say: "As she was writing Persuasion, Austen was ill with the disease that would eventually kill her, and because of this fact, her usual detailed pattern of revision was not completed; in this light, the diminished quality of the novel can certainly be understood. However, while not shining with her usual brilliance, Austen still produced a jewel in its own right, and perhaps more intriguing because of its flaws, as these flaws contribute to its uniqueness."

    I say: I think I do not see those flaws. Perhaps I (like the great critic Harold Bloom) would argue your assertion. But as I am not prone to arguments, I simply say that I rank _Persuasion_ as Austen's best (closely followed by _Emma_). I also — weird reader that I am — like _Northanger Abbey_. Hey, there's no accounting my taste.

  11. I'm sorry. I know you love this Austen but in this case, I can't concur. 🙁

    The flaws? I mentioned some to Ebookclassics above but I can think of more. How, with having little conversation with Wentworth, in their first meaningful exchange does Anne deduce that he loves her with little indication to the reader as to why? With regard to Mrs. Smith's behaviour when she thinks Anne is going to marry Mr. Eliot, it is fawning at the least and duplicitous at the worst. What is with the ingratiating manner at the start of their conversation until she exposes the truth and only then does she reveal her purpose. I realize that she doesn't want to offend Anne if the report of their union is true, but it doesn't reflect an honest character to behave in opposition to how one feels and especially about something so serious. Certain characters, including Mrs. Smith, often appear to be placed with a purpose of only being tools for certain idealogies or for other characters to springboard off instead of being developed into real characters. And honestly, it bothered me how we really only got a sense of Anne through other characters for at least half of the novel —– I like interacting with characters and it's hard to do it when the characters is presented, not from their actions or thoughts necessarily but through the actions of others. Half of Anne's goodness was merely because others around her were so intolerant or vain or grumpy or needy. Don't get me wrong, I think this technique has its place (perhaps in this case Austen employed it to highlight Anne's invisibility) but not to develop the majority of a character. I could go on, but I'll stop. As I said, Austen's writing is so magnificent, a less-than-stellar Austen equals a solid classic from other authors. Here's a link to an essay where the writer echoes some of the struggles that I had with the book. It at least gives some food for thought: http://www.jasna.org/persuasions/on-line/vol23no1/morris.html

    As to Northanger, as I mentioned to O above, now that I have a base for Northanger, I think I'll enjoy it much more the second time around.

    I'm not fond of Bloom's critiques. Among other idiosyncracies, he tends to judge certain classics through modern eyes, in which I will echo Pope in that, "a perfect judge will read each work of wit, with the same spirit that its author writ".

  12. Anne's quiet sense, integrity and her devotion to duty make her truly heroic. I actually was surprised when I read that sentence too, because I thought the main theme was going to be how Anne was wrongly persuaded, but instead, duty and devotion to family won out, even in spite of the wrong. I thought it was awesome!

  13. Well, you may not have been canvassing for brownie-points but you got 'em. 😉

    I'm sure that your write-up will be great. I'll be looking out for it!

  14. Reading your post, I wonder what I will think of Persuasion next time I read it. I don't recall having a strong opinion on it when I read it ages ago, but I know so many people love it that I've been kind of assuming that I would love it on a reread, but maybe not? Of course, I love Pride and Prejudice and Mansfield Park so much, that I guess that's okay. They can't all rate the same!

  15. It may not have come through clearly in my post, but I really liked Persuasion, I just thought it was weaker than her other novels. Even so, that weakness can be explained because of her health, so all-in-all I think it was as good as it was going to get, given the circumstances. And I can appreciate it for what I can see that Austen was trying to do, in spite of some of the glitches.

  16. I suppose what I really mean, too, is that even if it doesn't become my favorite Austen (and right now my so-so memory of it places it in the lower middle), I haven't found very many novels I enjoy more than even my least favorite of her novels. (Admittedly, this is part nostalgia.)

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