Anyone who believes that Jane Austen was merely a writer of silly love stories should take a closer look at Persuasion, her final completed novel. In her poignant memoir Austen Years, Rachel Cohen talks often of this novel and how its themes of loss and inner healing helped her come to terms with her own grieving process. I was drawn to a passage in which by comparing Austen’s novels to planetary bodies, Persuasion “is something like an asteroid that moves repeatedly among the different spheres.” Just like an asteroid or comet, this book has appeared at different intervals throughout my life. Much like Cohen, I first discovered it during a difficult period of loss within my family. My second read of it would become one of the earliest posts on this blog. Years later, Persuasion would become my first Folio edition (thanks Roof Beam Reader). It seems somewhat ironic that the two Austen novels that are most important to me represent two very different phases of life. While Northanger Abbey focuses on the follies of youth, “the romance of illusions,” as Conrad once eloquently stated, Persuasion is a work about growing up and coming to terms with some of life’s bitter truths. While the novel still contains her trademark humor and wit, this is the author at her most somber in dealing with the many facets of grief. I firmly believe that Jane Austen is one of the most re-readable authors that ever existed. Having followed the story of Anne Elliot for the third time, I was so amazed at how many little details I missed during the first two journeys. While Persuasion may not always be viewed as her greatest novel, it is a work that shows Austen at her most mature, and to me, perhaps her most important contribution.
Austen has always succeeded in giving her readers a clear impression of her heroines, Anne Elliot being no exception as demonstrated here:
“…with an elegance of mind and sweetness of character, which must have placed her high with any people of real understanding, was nobody with either father or sister: her word had no weight; her convenience was always to give way;-she was only Anne.”
With this passage, Austen provides insight to not only Anne’s character, but to her family as well. Her father and older sister are completely self-obsessed and treat Anne as a hindrance rather than as an equal. At the age of nineteen, Anne accepted a proposal of marriage from naval officer Frederick Wentworth. On the influence of her family as well as a dear family friend, Lady Russell, she ends the relationship, as Wentworth is lacking those important qualities of status and wealth. Embittered by the rejection, he returns to life at sea where he quickly moves up the ranks and amasses quite the fortune. Now at an age where she is considered a spinster, Anne has become a broken woman. Lacking in friends and essentially written off by her family, she is arguably a more pathetic heroine than her predecessor Fanny Price.
Due to the family’s declining financial situation, the Elliots must rent out their home to an Admiral Croft and his wife while first spending some time visiting Anne’s sister Mary (married to Charles Musgrove) and then visiting Bath. These events coincide with the end of the Napoleonic War, when many soldiers return back to England, bringing a Captain Frederick Wentworth into Anne’s circle of friends. As it turns out, Anne’s former love is Lady Croft’s brother! Coincidences are quite frequent and fun in nineteenth-century literature. Now significantly wealthier and just as handsome, Wentworth re-enters England and Anne’s world triggering regret and pain as she re-examines her unfortunate decision so many years before. Dwelling on what could have been rather than the person she could become, Anne’s journey is Austen at her more philosophical.
While Persuasion is a love story at its essence, it’s quite a different setup from the Austen works that proceeded it. Rather than move towards the love story, we are told from the start how it failed. Despite being a brilliant young woman, Anne Elliot is a woman without a voice. She is unfairly dismissed by her family due to her status as single and her age. Anne lacks self-confidence, as she feels her beauty has faded. Often suffering in silence, her mistake in rejecting Wentworth acts as a torment, fueling her own negative self-image. Something happens throughout the novel that is quite extraordinary. We see Anne grow in confidence and find her voice again, culminating in a brilliant scene late in the book. For me, Persuasion is so important because, at its core, this is a novel about coming to terms with your past while learning to love yourself again.
Though Austen writes in third person, the free-indirect discourse effortlessly weaves Anne’s thoughts into the narration so we are always privy to her thoughts. For example, in the scene when Mary tells her that Wentworth has found her much altered since their last meeting, the narration weaves Anne’s point of view into what would traditionally be an objective point of view: ‘So altered that she should not have known her again!’ These were words which could not but dwell with her. Yet she soon began to rejoice that she had heard them. They were of sobering tendency; they allayed agitation; they composed and consequently must make her happier.” Of course, Anne is not happier, the word “must” flagging her inner thoughts and attempts to believe her own lies. By this late point in her career, Austen had perfected a style bordering on the postmodern.
Persuasion not only serves as title but also the theme of the book. I actually lost track of the number of times a variation of the word “persuasion” itself is actually used. There is a double act occurring in the work with Anne being persuaded not to marry Frederick when she was nineteen, and later being persuaded to marry her cousin Elliot. Both acts were wrongful, and reminds us of the importance of having an independent mind and spirit. Throughout the novel, Anne’s strengths begin to emerge to the forefront, such as caring for her ill nephew and later possessing a calm mind during Louisa Musgrove’s tragic fall. These small events point to the larger picture of Anne’s kindness and resourcefulness.
Austen often gets criticized for never tackling larger issues. The truth is that she does through the behaviors of her characters. Anne’s sadness is indicative of the horrors of Austen’s time, such as the Napoleonic War, the death of loved ones, and illness. While these topics are not the novel’s primary focus, their presence is there nonetheless, creating this unsettling feeling, serving to remind the reader that despite the social cues and conventions that make up Victorian life, the basic facts of life still stand. One of my favorite friendships of the novel is between Anne and Commander Benwick, whose fiancé is now deceased. Much like Anne, he has become melancholy, turning to poetry for inspiration. Anne briefly compares whose loss was worse. While Benwick can never be reunited with his lost love, is Anne’s suffering more pronounced? Austen keeps her readers guessing, one moment having us question deep issues, and another laughing at the ditzy Louisa Musgrove or Anne’s sister Mary with her hypochondriac tendencies. Persuasion brings together all elements of human life. It’s so much more than a “silly romance.”
“A submissive spirit might be patient, a strong understanding would supply resolution, but here was something more; here was that elasticity of mind, that disposition to be comforted, that power of turning readily from evil to good, and of finding employment which carried her out of herself, which was from Nature alone.”
One of my favorite passages of this book is surprisingly not centered on the protagonist, or even a major character. Mrs. Smith is a widow who has suffered ill health, leaving her disabled, along with financial difficulties since the death of her husband. If any character has a right to be morose, it is her. Austen describes Mrs. Smith as a person who had “lived very much in the world,” meaning she has experienced the multiple traumas the world can offer, yet she is determined to earn a living in this society and think positively. It was so amazing to me that the most inspirational character in the novel is the one that received the least amount of page time.
I won’t spoil the ending……too much. Anne’s speech at the end (in addition to a well-written letter) bring events to a satisfying conclusion. As Anne looks upon the other characters in the final chapter, we see how far she has come. She recognizes the person she truly is, rather than who she used to be. Rather than mourn her decision of eight years ago, she now views it in a positive light, as she needed time to grow and mature. The same can be said of her creator as well. It’s ironic that Jane Austen’s final completed novel would be one that tackled the subjects of grief and loss. Persuasion is a crowning jewel that emphasizes the author’s growth and mature writing style.
“…but when pain is over, the remembrance of it becomes a pleasure.”