Persuasion is a fairly short but perfectly structured little novel. First published in 1818 after Jane Austen’s death it concerns Anne Elliot, the oldest of all Austen’s heroines. She is a much quieter and less excitable character than some of the heroines who came before her.
According to the introduction to this edition, it is possible to see Jane Austen’s inspiration for this novel in her own life. Shortly before she began to write Persuasion, Jane was obliged to involve herself in the romance of her beloved niece Fanny Knight, helping to sway her away from entering into a long engagement as she was uncertain that her niece’s affection for her suitor would survive such a long and uncertain commitment. This was seemingly not a position she relished being in, and she must have wondered again and again whether she had given her niece the right advice. Whether such a persuasion is a good thing or not, is a question which lies at the heart of this novel.
Twenty seven year old Anne Elliot is the second of the three daughters of Sir Walter Elliot of Kellynch Hall. Her eldest sister Elizabeth is their father’s constant companion and favourite, her youngest sister Mary already married. Anne is of little interest to her family except for where she can be of use to them. Her selfish spendthrift father has mismanaged his affairs to the point where he finds himself obliged to let out Kellynch Hall. Anne is saddened to think of her home being inhabited by others, but she has a particular interest in the news of who it is that has taken on the lease. The lease has been taken by Admiral Croft and his wife, and Mrs Croft is the sister to Captain Wentworth – who Anne was once very briefly engaged to. The engagement eight years earlier was entered into and then got out of almost as quickly, due to the interference of Lady Russell an especially close friend to Anne, who persuaded Anne that an engagement to Frederick Wentworth at that time would be damaging to his career and unwise for her. Eight years on Wentworth has returned from the Napoleonic wars having had a successful career and made a large fortune. Thankfully for Anne, only she, Captain Wentworth and Lady Russell know of the events of eight years earlier – events that poor Anne has always regretted. When her father and sister leaven Kellynch Hall for Bath, Anne goes to stay just a few miles away with her sister Mary, a selfish whiney young woman rather given to thinking herself ill, who is quite happy for Anne to manage her young children, and is far happier having the added interest of her sister’s presence in the house. During her stay at Uppercross with her sister Anne is thrown into society with her sister’s in-laws the Musgroves and through them meets the Crofts who have installed themselves in her old home and with them Captain Wentworth. Anne is anxious about meeting Wentworth again, and as no one knows what her feelings about him may be they unconsciously hurt her when talking about him, and speculating about his future.
” Captain Wentworth is not very gallant by you, Anne, though he was so attentive to me. Henrietta asked him what he thought of you, when they went away, and he said: ‘ You were so altered he should not of known you again.”
Anne spends a very happy few months at Uppercross with an especially pleasant couple of days spent at Lyme with the new set of friends and acquaintances she has been thrown into constant companionship with. Captain Wentworth is very much of this group, and Anne is surer than ever that she made a terrible mistake eight years earlier. Later, in the company of Lady Russell Anne leaves her sister’s home to join her father and sister in Bath. Here she comes to the notice of another Mr Elliot, her cousin, and her father’s heir. It soon becomes an expected thing in Bath that Anne Elliot will marry her cousin, although Anne has rather different feelings about the matter. She is therefore delighted when she discovers that Captain Wentworth has also come to Bath. However she is concerned that any residual interest that Captain Wentworth may have for her will be quashed by his jealousy of Mr Elliot.
“She understood him. He could not forgive her,-but he could not be unfeeling. Though condemning her for the past, and considering it with high and unjest resentment, though perfectly careless of her, and though becoming attached to another, still he could not see her suffer, without the desire of giving her relief. It was a remainder of former sentiment; it was an impuse of pure, though unacknowledged friendship; it was a proof of his own warm and amiable heart, which she could not contemplate without emotions so compounded of pleasure and pain, that she knew not which prevailed.
One of the things I particularly like about Anne Elliot is her quiet steadfastness; she knows her own mind now, as she is a more mature woman who has long nursed a bitter regret. She is sensible and good, graceful and gentle, and probably the very nicest of all Jane Austen’s heroines. The pain that she carries with her is a quiet sadness, which the reader can easily identify with. Persuasion is a perfectly crafted novel, and I can see why so many people think it a masterpiece. The novel explores the complexities of relationships and the misunderstandings that arise when young people are separated by the interference of others. Jane Austen’s characteristic wit and satirical observations are in good evidence too however. Anne’s sister Mary for instance is quite a hilariously ridiculous character. As a hero Captain Wentworth may not have to pomp and swagger of Mr Darcy but he is a thoroughly nice man, with whom the reader is certain Anne could be happy, and he writes a pretty good letter too.
Persuasion was a joy to re-read – I was surprised how I had forgotten most of the story, so it was almost like enjoying it for the first time. Reading Jane Austen feels like a real treat, and I am looking forward to re-reading the other novels at some point.