Eight years ago, Anne Elliot, then a lovely, thoughtful, warm-hearted and intelligent 19-year old, accepted a proposal of marriage from the handsome young naval officer Frederick Wentworth. Wentworth was clever, confident, and ambitious, but poor and with no particular family connections to recommend him and support his career. Sir Walter Elliot, Anne’s snobbish father, and her equally self-involved older sister Elizabeth were highly dissatisfied with her choice, maintaining that Wentworth was no match for an Elliot of Kellynch Hall. Her older friend and mentor, Lady Russell, acting in place of Anne’s late mother, persuaded her to break the engagement, for she, too, felt it was beneath her young protégée. Frederick, deeply disappointed, went to war; Anne was left alone, brokenhearted and not willing to look for another suitor.
Now, on the verge of spinsterhood, 27-year-old Anne re-encounters Frederick Wentworth but in quite different circumstances. Wentworth’s sister and brother-in-law, the Crofts, take out a lease on Kellynch Hall – Sir Walter is forced by his own financial irresponsibility to rent it out and move to Bath. Wentworth himself is now a wealthy captain, prosperous due to maritime victories in the Napoleonic wars. However, he has not forgiven Anne for rejecting him. While publicly declaring that he is ready to marry any suitable young woman who catches his fancy, he privately resolves that he is ready to become attached to any appealing young woman with the exception of his old flame. Soon enough he starts courting Anne’s spirited young neighbour, Louisa Musgrove. Is it man’s nature to forget the woman he loves sooner than woman forgets man? Is an invariably determined person any wiser than an easily persuadable one? And most important, will Anne and Frederick ever get what they really want?
Persuasion is Jane Austen’s last completed novel – she began it soon after she had finished Emma and completed it in August 1816. It was published in December 1817, the same year Austen died (but dated 1818). In many blurbs the novel is called a romance about second chances; there are clear parallels with the earlier novel, Mansfield Park, which also emphasized the importance of constancy in the face of adversity, and the need to endure. However I would call it an Austen version of Cinderella.
Anne Elliot is our Cinderella – a heroine generally unappreciated and to some degree exploited by those around her. It’s not that she has to clean, wash, cook and sweep and never goes to any ball, far from it. Still she is lonely and full of regrets while her father and sisters are far too involved in their own self-importance to notice. It is not that she is unloved, but rather that those around her no longer see her as an independent person. As a result Anne has to live vicariously through them. If anything happens in her life it happens because her father and her older sister wishes so and they never take into account a possibility that Anne might want to express her own opinion or, heaven forbid, decide about her fate. She’s become such a fixed part of their lives that her likes and dislikes, wishes and dreams are no longer considered, even by those who claim to value her, like her older and well-meaning friend, Lady Russell.
Overall if you’ve ever felt like your closest relations and/or friends didn’t treat you the way they should, if you’d ever been advised wrongly and regretted your decision afterwards, you would understand Anne’s quiet misery and gradual wilting pretty well. It is hard not to feel for her but then you ask yourself whether it wasn’t also partially her fault. Let’s face it – at some time Anne tacitly agreed to become a doormat and her relatives were only too willing to accept her new status quo – it was darn convenient because it solved so many problems, didn’t it? Unfortunately it made Anne completely miserable but who would care or notice?
Gillian Beer, a literary scholar, establishes that Austen had profound concerns about the levels and applications of “persuasion” employed in society, especially as it related to the pressures and choices facing the young women of her day. She notes that Austen personally was appalled by what she came to regard as her own misguided advice to her beloved niece, Fanny Knight, on the very question of whether Fanny ought to accept a particular suitor, even though it would have meant a protracted engagement. Ultimately Fanny rejected her suitor and, after the death of her aunt, married someone else.
Persuasion is also the first of Austen’s novels to feature as the main character a woman who, by the standards of the time, was already past the first bloom of youth. Austen’s biographer Claire Tomalin characterized the book as Austen’s “present to herself. . . to all women who had lost their chance in life and would never enjoy a second spring”; I completely agree with her. There is something deeply personal in the narration and characterization of Anne Elliot which shows, in my humble opinion, that Jane Austen cared a lot about her. This is also a subtle book, with a rather simple plot which moves forward slowly. Anne never gives anything away about other characters and herself. She remains shy, paralyzed by social conventions and her own ideas of duty and responsibility for quite a long time.
The self-interested machinations of Anne’s father, her older sister Elizabeth, Elizabeth’s widowed friend Mrs. Clay, and William Elliot (Anne’s cousin and her father’s heir) constitute important subplots, full of comic relief; still the sense of humor, in my view, is rather pale, especially if you compare it to the earlier Austen books. It’s like an autumn sunny day compared to a summer scorcher.
Finally it should be mentioned that Persuasion reflects an important period in Britain when the very shape of society was changing, as landed wealth (exemplified by Sir Walter, the proud and foolish baronet, and his relation, the Dowager Viscountess Dalrymple) finds it necessary to accommodate the growing prominence of the nouveau riche (such as Wentworth and the Crofts who actually earned their merit, not just inherited it). The success of two of Austen’s brothers in the Royal Navy was probably a significant factor here.
My second best Austen book, right after Mansfield Park, with some biting comments about family, responsibility, and condition of women. Also a great love story with a fully deserved and sweet happy ending. I recommend it wholeheartedly.