“…when pain is over, the remembrance of it often becomes a pleasure.”Volume II, Chapter VIII
Austen has often been the source of profound morals which have been weaved seamlessly into her characters and plot lines and Persuasion is no exception. Let’s begin by looking at the title, often overlooked when you start a novel – but a good place to start.
Persuasion was originally entitled The Elliot’s by Austen, however it is rumoured that Henry Austen decided to rename it Persuasion, without realising the profound impacts this has on the novel and how it is perceived.
For a modern-day audience, ‘persuasion’ carries the connotations of falling under the influence of someone or something else or debating different sides of an argument. In this light, it immediately highlights Anne’s situation in a disadvantaged way, spotlighting a mistake committed years earlier. As a young woman of nineteen, Anne allowed herself to be persuaded not to marry the man she loved, she now has to deal with the consequences. This circumstance, although not specific to Anne and Persuasion highlights the societal expectations of women to marry to secure their futures. This was a heavy price to pay for any woman, for Anne being open to persuasion arguably lead to her tragic downfall.
But by re-adjusting our definition of ‘persuasion’ it might reframe Anne’s situation. If persuasion means, “A set of beliefs, especially religious or political ones.” We can then view Anne’s decision not as a result of external ‘persuasion’ but that her set of beliefs or faith in Wentworth was not strong enough for her to form a well-rounded decision.
Monica Fairview, author and member of the ‘Jane Austen Literary Foundation’ argues that by calling the novel Persuasion, Henry Austen places too much emphasis on the beginning of the novel – the ‘mistake’, rather than on the understanding reached by both characters. From this perspective, Anne is rather not ‘persuaded’ but capable as she couldn’t have made any other decision.
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For a novel such as Persuasion, it is almost impossible to even begin discussing it without giving thought to Austen herself. Most people have at least heard of the name ‘Jane Austen’ and throughout her literary career understanding her piercing social observation and subtly subversive style helps the twenty-first century reader to gain an understanding of the complex class and gender relations which underscored early-nineteenth century English middle-class society. Persuasion was Austen’s last novel, published in 1817 and the maturity within her work is highlighted, as she continued to step out of sphere and write about the personal flaws and mistakes of the proud gentry. Such subtle criticism is nearly always cleverly entangled in her characters, whilst her final novel also stands out for the nationalistic pride for the Navy. At the height of the British Empire, the Navy was admired as the defender of British interests throughout the world. Such heroes introduce a new, rougher ideal of manliness into Austen’s world, yet her female characters rival this strong-willed nature as she continually questions people’s roles in society.
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Persuasion is widely appreciated as a moving love story despite what has been labelled as a simple plot, but Austen’s iconic narrative style remains throughout. The novel follows Anne’s attempts to marry for love rather than social advantage, despite the insistence of her excessively vain father Sir Walter Elliot, who refuses to curb his spending despite mounting debts. He and his three daughters, Elizabeth, Anne and Mary, let out their home (Kellynch) to a family rising through society; the Crofts, bringing new connections, potential marriages and intrigues. The wife’s brother is Captain Wentworth to whom Anne was engaged eight years ago but haven’t had any contact since. When Sir Walter, along with Elizabeth and a friend of the family, Mrs Clay, go to Bath, Anne stays with Mary at Uppercross for two months. Anne particularly enjoys Elizabeth’s husband family including his siblings, Henrietta and Louisa. They all travel to Lyme to visit the Harvilles and the reader is introduced to Sir Elliot, Anne’s cousin and heir to Kellynch. The inevitable troubles which stem from the relationships, dialogues and meetings between characters of varying status and class; whilst navigating marriages and inheritance, provides an interesting insight into society of the time.
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It is the first of Austen’s novels to feature as the central character a woman who, by the standards of the time, is well past the first bloom of youth; at twenty-seven Anne is characterised as a present to herself and to her sister Cassandra who remained unmarried despite Jane receiving an offer from a wealthy suitor. This theme also famously comes through in Austen’s writing in her wry opening line to Pride and Prejudice, “it is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”
At the same time, the novel is an acclamation to the self-made man. Captain Wentworth is just one of several naval officers who has risen from humble beginnings to affluence and status on the strength of merit and luck, not by inheritance. “All his sanguine expectations, all his confidence had been justified. His genius and ardour had seemed to foresee and to command his prosperous path.” It marks a time where the very roots of society were changing, as ‘old money’ exemplified by Sir Walter, had to accommodate the rising strength of the nouveau riche, such as Wentworth. He is then is a worthy foil to the materialistic patriarch, Sir Walter as he values character and personality over wealth and social status. The comparison of these two characters can be seen in modern-day interpretations, as many celebrities earn considerable fortunes based on their image and appearance, therefore arguably the anachronistic Sir Walter would be in good company even today.
Which brings us to Anne Elliot, although not as witty or intelligent as Elizabeth Bennett in Pride and Prejudice, Anne’s portrayal is one of more subtle defiance and her appeal lies in her ordinariness. She doesn’t openly challenge tradition yet remains true to her feelings for Wentworth, she doesn’t succumb to the women’s flitting flirtatious nature to find an appropriate suitor.
Even now, Persuasion and Austen’s other works leave us questioning how much of her own hopes and dreams are bound up in her female leads. By speculating how much her own life influences her characters and plot lines, of whether she lives vicariously through their love lives, we can never know. But to read Austen is to never take her own life out of the equation.
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My favourite part of the book for me comes in Volume II, Chapter IX in which Captain Harville and Anne discuss the nature and constancy of men and women, with Anne claiming women, “…cannot help ourselves. We live at home, quiet, confined, and our feelings prey upon us.” The reply from Captain Harville is one of Austen’s subversive approaches, “our bodies are the strongest, so are our feelings; capable of bearing most rough usage and riding out the heaviest weather.” In exploring men’s emotions in relation to the physical world, she subtly and cleverly questions whilst remaining the boundaries of society.
But when reading Austen, the temptation to refer to her other works and society she lives in, often distracts from the opinion of the actual novel. Persuasion follows a simple plot thread and the enjoyment comes from the strength of her characters, rather than her unpredictable, twisting story – although if you are reading Austen, arguably this is not an expectation you expect to be met. Her characters have outlived her by two centuries and will remain a benchmark focus for other writers in creating developed characters that continue to display complex moral personalities and relationships. I would recommend Persuasion, to any Austen fan, any romance lover and anyone 12+ who wants an introduction to classical literature as the plot is easy to follow and characters fun to engage with.