Persuasion by Jane Austen

persuasion coverThe pen in her hand…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Eight years ago, Anne Elliot fell in love and became engaged to a young naval officer, Frederick Wentworth. Frederick had little money but, at a time when Britain was at war with Napoleonic France, the prospects for advancement in his career were good. But Anne’s friend Lady Russell, who is something of a substitute mother figure to Anne since her own mother died some years earlier, persuaded her that a lengthy engagement with no guarantee that Frederick would make his fortune was unwise, and so Anne broke off with Frederick. She has never forgotten him though, even turning down another more eligible suitor. Now Captain Wentworth has returned from the wars a wealthy and successful man, while the Elliots are on the brink of financial ruin. But Captain Wentworth hasn’t forgotten the hurt that Anne caused him and despises her for her weakness in allowing herself to be persuaded. And his changed circumstances and gallant bearing make him an attractive catch for the other, younger, single women in the neighbourhood.

Her pleasure in the walk must arise from the exercise and the day, from the view of the last smiles of the year upon the tawny leaves and withered hedges, and from repeating to herself some few of the thousand poetical descriptions extant of autumn – that season of peculiar and inexhaustible influence on the mind of taste and tenderness – that season which has drawn from every poet worthy of being read some attempt at description, or some lines of feeling.

This is the last novel that Jane Austen completed before her tragically early death, and Anne is her most mature heroine. At the age of twenty-seven, Anne is already sadly faded and has reached the age when her chances of achieving a good marriage are rapidly receding. Sir Walter Elliot, Anne’s father, is a member of the landed gentry, obsessed with his ancestry and his family’s social standing. Living well above his means, he has reduced the family fortune to such a low ebb that he has no option but to lease his house, Kellynch Hall, and take a much smaller place in Bath. The new tenants of Kellynch are Admiral Croft and his wife Sophy, who is Captain Wentworth’s sister. And so Anne and Frederick are thrown back into the same social circle…

persuasion covers

There is a tendency, not helped by a rash of chick-littish covers over the last few years, for Austen’s books to be looked upon as simple romances. Of course, on one level they are. On the surface, this is a Cinderella story. Anne is the downtrodden under-appreciated daughter, complete with two sisters who might be beautiful on the outside but are pretty ugly underneath. Anne has to be her own fairy godmother – her innate kindness and patient constancy the magic she must use to win her Prince.

Anne wondered whether it ever occurred to him now, to question the justness of his own previous opinion as to the universal felicity and advantage of firmness of character; and whether it might not strike him that, like all other qualities of the mind, it should have its proportions and limits. She thought it could scarcely escape him to feel that a persuadable temper might sometimes be as much in favour of happiness as a very resolute character.

But, as in every Austen novel, there’s so much more to it than that. Austen’s insight into the society of her own time catches every nuance of how status worked at a time when it was beginning to change. Completed in 1816, the book reflects the social upheavals of the long war, when military and naval officers had won both fortune and respect and were now looking to take their place in civilian life on an equal footing with the hereditary landowners – their wealth making up for any deficiencies in ancestry. Birth is still important in this society, but character is shown as the true hallmark of the gentleman. Austen’s very positive image of the naval officers might have been influenced by the fact that two of her own brothers were seamen, each rising to the rank of Admiral in later life.

persuasion illustration 3

In contrast, there’s a more biting edge to her observations on the snobbishness and toad-eating of the traditional squirearchy than in her earlier novels. Anne’s father and sisters may still feel their lineage entitles them to automatic respect, but Austen reserves her respect and that of the rest of her characters for the people who have achieved their status through their own actions. Not quite a meritocracy yet, and Austen makes no explicit reference to the recent upheavals of the American and French revolutions, nor to the beginnings of the industrial age, but even her rural society is clearly feeling the first breezes of the winds of change.

persuasion illustration 2

And there’s something similar going on in her portrayal of the status of women. Austen’s heroines always defied the convention of making loveless matches for wealth, but the early ones, even my beloved Lizzie, wanted most of all to find a man they could love and respect but who would give them a life not significantly different to that of their childhoods. They wanted a respectable establishment in a rural society, be it a minor one like Elinor’s rectory in Sense and Sensibility or a glittering prize like Lizzie’s Pemberley in Pride and Prejudice. Emma may be the ultimate example of this – her marriage simply added a husband to the family and house she grew up in and barely changed her position or lifestyle at all.

persuasion illustration 1

Anne Elliot is a different kind of heroine. She has had the benefit of eight years to think about what she wants from life and she knows it’s not the small and restricted world of Kellynch, or even Bath. She admires Admiral Croft’s wife for accompanying her husband as he sailed the world, and part of the attraction of Captain Wentworth is that he will expand her horizons beyond the tiny circle in which she and her family move. Austen’s rather barbed humour about the daily intercourse between the two families at Uppercross is an indication of how small this rural world really is, and of how friendships and relationships are determined by propinquity rather than shared tastes or interests. The senior Musgroves are intriguing in their relative relaxation about whom their daughters marry – they are more concerned with their children’s happiness than their social advancement. These were the days of the first feminist writers – Mary Wollstonecraft et al – and again, without direct reference, Austen provides hints that her world may be on the cusp of change. Marriage and wealth are still key for women, but Anne looks out at a different world and finds it an enticing prospect.

“I do not think I ever opened a book in my life which had not something to say upon woman’s inconstancy. Songs and proverbs, all talk of woman’s fickleness. But perhaps you will say, these were all written by men.”

“Perhaps I shall. Yes, yes, if you please, no reference to examples in books. Men have had every advantage of us in telling their own story. Education has been theirs in so much higher a degree; the pen has been in their hands. I will not allow books to prove anything.”

Of course, I don’t want to pretend that this is a revolutionary or feminist tract. Anne’s story is still one of a woman subordinate first to her father and then to her husband and subject to persuasion to conform to society’s norms. She’s not a rebel, but her stubbornness in refusing to make a loveless match and her constancy in her love for Captain Wentworth make her a strong and appealing heroine. I wish I liked Captain Wentworth more – I think the way he runs away when Louisa is injured is unforgivable, and I really dislike how his interest in Anne is reawakened only once her youthful bloom begins to return in the bracing air of Lyme. But he recognises her true worth in the end, I suppose. He’ll never be Darcy though…

darcy and lizzie

47 thoughts on “Persuasion by Jane Austen

  1. Ah, I knew it’d been too long since you posted a Darcy picture, FictionFan! 🙂 – Seriously, though, I’ve always admired the way Austen was able to hold up a mirror to her own society and take a look at it. As you say, the romance part’s there, no doubt. But they’re often less ridiculous than a lot of romance novels. And underneath are the larger issues that influence the players involved. And I think if you look at the novels that way, they’re as much a social history series as much as anything.

    • I knew you’d go into a decline if there wasn’t a Darcy pic soon! 😉 Yes, on the whole the romance aspects are credible and, apart from Lizzie, her girls don’t make unrealistically brilliant matches. But re-reading them all fairly close together like this has really made me realise the subtle changes she shows over time – even though her writing life was short. Great books individually, but a truly remarkable body of work overall.

  2. My favourite Jane Austen and one I like to reread periodically. There is something so sad and wise about it, it feels much more realistic, and every single one of the characters is flawed.

    • P&P will always be my favourite but I enjoyed this one much more than I seem to remember doing in the past. There’s not much drama in it, but Anne is such a realistic heroine.

    • It doesn’t get the attention of either P&P or S&S but I’ve been surprised how many people have said it’s their favourite. I suspect it’s one that works better for older adults than teens and early twenties – easier to identify with Anne maybe. Haha! I picture almost everyone being played by Colin Firth… or George Clooney! 😉

  3. As you know, I’m not a great Austen fan, but of all her books this is my favourite. Great review – you may have persuaded (no reference intended!) to embark on a reread. I feel I should reread them all while I can still hold my beautiful Folio Society books, as opposed to my Kindle.

  4. I love Jane Austen’s books. Read Persuasion the last time with a book group. I was amazed at how few of the members had ever read an Austen novel. And I was also amazed at how many were not impressed and considered it a ‘light romance’. Seriously? I felt like they missed the point in many ways and tried to convey that. The wit, the biting comments about society at that time, the tongue-in-cheek observations. Of course, not everyone loves the same books. For me, Sense and Sensibility is my favorite. Elinor Dashwood is my favorite Austen heroine. Loved your analysis and, who doesn’t love Mr. Darcy (always Colin Firth in my mind).

    • I know – I often see reviews that only look at the romance aspects and complain of them being slow or not exciting enough. It baffles me a bit! My favourite will always be P&P in terms of sheer enjoyment, but I think S&S is a much better book – more realistic and the characterisation goes much deeper. It also reflects a truer picture of the society than P&P, I think – but let’s face it, it doesn’t have Darcy! 😉 (Though actually it’s Lizzie I love P&P for really…)

  5. A stunning review. I love how cogently you have argued for Austen as being very far from merely a writer (however good a writer) of romance. And precisely why we return to her, with relief and gratitude!

  6. What an excellent review! I particularly enjoyed reading your insights about the differences between Anne Elliot and JA’s other heroines.
    Also, I agree with you that Capt. Wentworth is certainly no Darcy! 😉

    • Thank you! 😀 I’ve become much more aware of the subtle differences in the books because I’ve re-read them all in a shortish space of time – except Mansfield Park, which I shall re-read soon. She’s one of the very few authors where I love every book, though obviously some more than others. But Darcy and Lizzie are special even for her.

    • Thank you very much, sonmi! 😀 I recommend a re-read – I definitely felt I appreciated it more this time than when I first read it in my own teens,

    • I still prefer P&P but this is definitely up there with the best of them. Well, when I know there’s a perfect man out there, why settle for second best… 😉

    • Haha! Every time I embark on an Austen or Dickens re-read I remind myself of the zillions of great books I’ve never read, but there’s something so comforting about going back to an old favourite…

  7. Thank you for stopping by my blog. I’m a big Jane Austen fan and Persuasion is one of my favorites. I really appreciate what you said about Austen’s books being misconstrued as simple romances. That frustrates me so often! Thankfully I live in a family where at least half the guys appreciate Austen as well…. and of course all of the girls do too. 🙂
    youmeandacupofteablog.blogspot.com

    • I’ve been gradually re-reading them all over the last year or so and I love seeing how she shows different aspects of society and how it changed even in her short lifetime. But some of the covers are so misleading – no wonder people think of them as romances and then complain they’re too slow! But of course I’m still in love with Darcy… 😉

      Thanks for popping by and commenting! 🙂

  8. Persuasion is my favourite Austen novel, although what you say about older readers identifying with this novel may be right, as when I was younger I loved P&P best. Captain Wentworth is a self-made man, though and there is a lot to be said for that in any age.

    • Yes, I definitely like Persuasion more now than when I first read it as a teenager, when poor Anne just seemed like an insipid wuss! Now I appreciate her much more, but Capt Wentworth will never take Darcy’s place in my heart… 😉

  9. I was on an Austen binge about fifteen years ago and read this story. At the start, I was not impressed, but she grew on me. I fear that overall, Austen is underestimated given what she had to work with at that time.

  10. Oh, of course Austen books are just for ladies! (Cinderella is a nice gory story, you should know. I like it a bit.) You see, Captain W would never come home looking for a wife. If he’s a warrior, the thing he’d do is take a fort or something.

    That one book cover…where the very white-ish woman is staring at a ship in a bottle…that’s an interest. And that other picture…with that fellow. He’s wearing the most ridiculous pants I’ve ever seen, you know, you know.

    • *laughs* I thought you’d missed this one and I knew you’d be soooo disappointed. I’ve already added it to your list – don’t worry! There’s almost no dancing in it at all! (You like the bit where they chop their heels and toes off, I bet!) But he’d need a wife to do the cooking and cleaning, and listen awestruck to his tales of derring-do…

      *laughs more* Oh I was so hoping you might get pants like that yourself! I think they should come back into fashion. His shoes are lovely too! And imagine wearing that collar…

      • They actually chop their toes and heels off? *skeptical professorish eye* That’s too drastic for JA. No, he doesn’t! He can cook for himself…or hire a cook…and…who cares about dusting anyway! You can draw interesting things in a pile of dust, you know.

        *gulps* I would never wear those! Yucketh ten times!! He looks…like Count Dracula!

        • *laughs lots* I was talking about Cinderella not Persuasion! I love the idea of Ms Austen’s characters doing something so brutal though. But being a warrior he would obviously fall in love – they all do. He could still do the housework as well though…

          *sad face* You wouldn’t? Not even for your FEF? But you’d look so sweet…

  11. I haven’t read Austen in ages, FictionFan, and you’re inspiring me to get back to it. And, seriously, I can’t rank Austen’s books. They are ALL my favorites 🙂

    • Ha! I know what you mean. P&P wins for me but by a very small margin, and I like Emma least, but again still love it, nonetheless. And I couldn’t choose between the other ones at all. It’s been great re-reading them all – you should! 🙂

  12. Fantastic review and thanks for the pic of Darcy which was much needed at the time I write this – sigh! Persuasion is actually one of Austen’s that I haven’t read hmmm must remedy that soon. 😉

    • Thanks, Beth! 🙂 Yes, one must never miss an opportunity for posting a Darby pic – the first rule of blogging! Definitely worth a read – but then they all are…

  13. […] Persuasion by Jane Austen – a tragic story of a young woman who dumps her lover and then is surprised that he takes her seriously and goes to war with the French (an extreme reaction, but quite romantic in its way. A bit unfair on the French though, perhaps.) The moral of this story is surely that we should grab the first offer we get, girls, for fear we might otherwise end up having to marry a curate… […]

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