First Published: 1818
Pages: 312 (Hardback)
Jane Austen’s final novel is the story of Anne Elliot, a woman who gets a second chance. As a teenager she becomes engaged to a man who seems perfect for her, Frederick Wentworth. But she is persuaded to break the engagement off by her friend Lady Russel, who believes he is too poor to be a suitable match. The episode plunges Anne into a period of bleak disappointment. Eight years later, Frederick returns from the Napoleonic Wars flushed with success. Anne’s circumstances have also changed; her father’s spendthrift ways means he has been forced to lease the home to a naval family. Will Anne and Frederick rediscover their love? Can their changed fortunes inhibit their feelings? Persuasion is a story of self-knowledge and personal regeneration, of social change and emotional politics.
I’ve been meaning to reread Persuasion for ages. It’s the last of Austen’s novels and the first time I read it was during a bit of an Austen binge (all her major novels, back to back, in order of publication) and thus was feeling a bit romanced-out by the time I got round to this one and didn’t really ‘click’ with it. I’ve always suspected that my ambivalence towards it back then was a little unfair and that a reread would improve my opinion, and I’m happy to say that I was right. It’s still not my favourite Austen but I did really really enjoy it and predict at least a couple more rereads in the future (which is a lot more than can be said about Mansfield Park).
As most people talking/writing about Austen will tell you, Persuasion is the most ‘mature’ of Austen’s books, which, despite sounding totally pompous, I guess I have to agree with. It’s a more sedate novel than Austen’s earlier works; less full of sparkling wit but touching more overtly on social, gender, and class issues. It tells the story of Anne Elliot who, at 19, broke off an engagement to a handsome young Navy officer due to pressure from her friends and family about his lack of wealth and connections. Eight years later, age 27 and still unmarried, her own family has frittered away all its money when Captain Wentworth returns from the Napoleonic Wars, rich, well-regarded, and determined to marry and settle down with anyone but Anne Elliot.
The two are thrown frequently into each other’s company by mutual acquaintances (ignorant of their earlier engagement) and have to learn to deal with their lingering feelings, regrets, and resentments as well as their change in situations, ignorant comments from people who don’t know about their previous relationship, jealousies caused by various other suitors, and her horrible snobbish family. It’s a very one-sided romance for most of the book, however, which makes it hard for me as a reader to fall in love with Wentworth the same way I can for most of Austen’s other heroes. As the story is told mostly from Anne’s perspective, Captain Wentworth spends most of the early parts of the book ignoring her, getting in petty jabs when telling people about the qualities he wants in a wife (‘firmness of character‘ – just give that knife a bit more of a twist will you, Wentworth?), and paying more attention to almost every other female character. This is probably the reason I wasn’t such a big fan of Persuasion the first time round – I expected more romance and more interplay between the two characters – but that’s not really the focus here.
It’s Anne’s feelings, the heartbreak, the uncertainty, and the hope that form the emotional heart of the story, and I think they’re handled very well. I can only really say ‘think’ here because I have never been in love nor pined for an ex (I mean I have got back with one once, but that was a drunken mistake that shall never be repeated). But Anne’s jumble of thoughts and feelings at being suddenly thrust into the company of the man she loves, who she believes hates her, felt believable and genuine. She’s a quiet but complex character and rereading it, knowing not to expect the witty flirting of Pride and Prejudice, I was able to enjoy the book and feel for Anne’s situation a lot more than I did the first time round.
The other interesting thing about Persuasion is that it is much more critical of traditional class and gender roles and reflects how those were beginning to change in the early 19th century. Anne’s family may be titled while Wentworth’s aren’t, but her family spend away their wealth on frivolous, useless vanities and are almost bankrupt by the start of the book, forced to give up their few genuine duty’s as landlords by retreating to a cheaper environment and letting out the ancestral home to strangers. Meanwhile Wentworth and his brother in-law build significant wealth and respect by risking their lives in service for their country and return richer and on almost equal social footing with Anne’s father. The novel celebrates this social mobility achieved through military service (Austen’s brothers were both naval officers) while showing a more critical portrait of the aristocratic classes than in any of Austen’s previous books. While most of the titled characters, and Anne’s family especially, are so preoccupied with status that they are blind to the individual merits (or lack there of) of those they socialise with, Wentworth and his navy chums just hang out, have fun and act like real friends who actually care about each other – and it’s obvious which society Anne prefers. Then there’s Admiral and Mrs. Croft, possibly the only happy married couple in all of Austen’s novels, who do almost everything together, genuinely enjoy each others company, and serve a big ‘fuck you’ to everybody who tries to force women into traditional ‘delicate female – must be protected’ stereotypes – “I hate to hear you talk about all women as if they were fine ladies instead of rational creatures. None of us want to be in calm waters all our lives.”
Persuasion isn’t as overtly witty as some of Austen’s other books (though it definitely has its moments, Anne’s family are hilariously awful), the romance isn’t as up front as perhaps people expect from an Austen novel, but I really like it. It’s a quieter book with a nice feelgood story that also has a few things to say; both about romance, forgiveness, second chances, and about society in general. Not that that isn’t always there to varying degrees in all her works – I will scorn anyone who says Austen is nothing but ‘romance and finding a husband’ – but in Persuasion it’s just that bit more open. It also contains one of my favourite Austen quotes of all time:
“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.”
You tell ’em, Miss Austen!
Still not my favourite Austen, but probably the one I will revisit the most often. I think it’s one of those books that every reread provides something slightly different. I liked it the first time but felt slightly disappointed, this time I enjoyed it a lot more and bought further into the romance, next time… who knows? Maybe I’ll finally start to fall in love with Captain Wentworth – the 1995 and 2007 film/TV adaptations are certainly pushing me that way already with their delicious depictions of him.