Persuasion by Jane Austen (1818)
Persuasion was Jane Austen’s last completed novel, and it was published alongside Emma after her death. Last novels have always had a special interest for me, and Persuasion is no exception. This is the third novel that I’ve read by Austen (and it’s worth noting that I read Austen for the first time last spring at about this time), and although my introduction to the author has come much later than most people I know, I definitely understand why so many readers adore her works. I loved Emma, but Persuasion has become my new favorite.
Like Northanger Abbey and Emma, at its most basic level, Persuasion offers its readers the typical early 19th century marriage plot. The protagonist and heroine of the novel is Anne Elliot. Anne is the second daughter of Sir Walter Elliot, her older sister is Elizabeth (identical in opinions and temperament to her father and his favorite) and her younger sister is Mary, who has already married into the Musgrove family who dwell at Uppercross. No one in Anne’s family cares much about what she thinks or feels or wants, nor do they really consider her existence or her worth until she can be of some use to them. Her mother died when she was fourteen, and so Lady Russell, a close friend of the family, has become a mother-figure for Anne. Unlike Catherine and Emma, Anne is not in the first blush of youth; instead, she is twenty-seven years old at the beginning of the novel, and she has already experienced disappointment and pain in love. When Anne was nineteen she met and fell in love with Captain Wentworth and they became engaged; but Anne was persuaded by Lady Russell to call off the engagement because Wentworth had neither fortune nor class status equal to Anne’s. Lady Russell persuades Anne that such a match would be a mésalliance, and that Anne would be needlessly throwing herself away. The result is that Anne loses her bloom, Captain Wentworth goes off to naval service, and the two do not meet each other again for eight years. The work of the novel is to overcome the intervening years so that Anne and Captain Wentworth can be finally united in love and marriage.
But there’s more to catch a reader’s interest in the novel than the marriage plot. Another thing that is typical of an Austen novel is the preoccupation with and social commentary on the rigid class structure and class consciousness of 19th century England. One of the wonderful scenes in the novel occurs when Austen, through Anne, challenges the ways in which male writers have been privileged to label women (here women are labeled as inconstant and fickle), without women having any ability or privilege to challenge those labels or form their own identities. Also, those characters who are the most class conscious and concerned with issues of precedence based upon one’s position in society are revealed to be the most worthless members of society. Men who are preoccupied with knowing only “gentlemen” and the landed gentry and nobility show that though appearances and titles identify them as gentlemen, they fall very very short of what an English gentleman should be (at least, in Austen’s opinion). Austen is most scathing in her critique of Sir Walter’s selfishness, his idleness, and his financial insolvency arising from his sense of entitlement and necessity to enjoy all that he feels baronets are entitled to enjoy, regardless of his mounting debts. All outward appearances indicate that Sir Walter is a gentleman, but everything beneath the surfaces provides undeniable evidence to the contrary. Austen also aims her pen at the insistence upon precedence that determined a woman’s place within her family and within her society, and she embodies all that she sees as reprehensible in the character of Mary, Anne’s sister. Indeed, with the exception of Anne, the entire Elliot family is held up as being the very picture of all that is wrong with the class of landed gentry in 19th century England, and Austen makes the case that although power and authority have resided in this class for decades, this class’s power and authority is no longer legitimate or even desirable, and it is significant that at the end of the novel, Anne Elliot withdraws from this old order in favor of the new order.
That new order is characterized by the rising professional class, specifically in this novel, the naval officers settling back into the domestic sphere as the war between England and France is nearing its conclusion. In Austen’s view, these men—men like Captain Wentworth and his friends, Captain Benwick and Captain Harville, as well as Admiral Croft, who is currently renting the ancestral home of the Elliots, Kellynch Hall—comprise the legitimate center of power and authority. These men actually have a positive and protective influence upon England, and rather than draining the country of its resources and concerning themselves with espousing and upholding a rigid class structure as a means of exclusion and flattering their vanity, they actually give something back to society.
There is something appealing about Anne Elliot as the protagonist and heroine of the novel whose constancy, intelligence, and goodness finally brings her the man she loved and lost at such a young age. There is also something about Anne that resonates with me and that I can relate to and identify with, and maybe that’s why she is my favorite Austen heroine thus far. Though we don’t see Wentworth as much as perhaps I wanted, his words to Anne at the end and their reunion is just a feel good moment in the story. Yes, you get the happy ending you’ve been expecting all along, but more importantly, that happy ending is deeply satisfying and actually evoked an emotional response from me. Overall, I enjoyed this book immensely and definitely recommend it to readers who haven’t tried Austen or haven’t read Persuasion.