Persuasion by Jane Austen
Final Verdict: 3.75 of 4.0
4 – Plot/Story is interesting/believable and impactful (socially, academically, etc.)
Persuasion is the story of Anne Elliot, the middle-daughter of Sir Walter and Lady Elliot, the latter of whom died fourteen years prior to the start of the book. Elizabeth and Anne are both single, but Mary, the youngest, is married to a wealthy man called Charles Musgrove. Sir Elliot is on the brink of ruin, having spent lavishly and recklessly for some time, but particularly following the death of his wife. He is a vain man who must be “convinced” by a trusted family friend, Lady Russell, to limit his spending, relocate, and rent out their expansive manor (Kellynch Hall) to raise income. Lady Russell is also responsible for Anne’s somewhat melancholy state, having persuaded Anne to reject the proposal of one Captain Wentworth who, at the time, was without name or income. As the story unfolds, secrets are exposed, friends and family are reunited and divided, and the questions of enduring love and what it takes to create a meaningful and functional marriage are raised.
3 – Characters well-developed.
Many, if not all, of the characters in this book are important and necessary to the plot. In Sense and Sensibility, it can be argued that perhaps not all of the Dashwood sisters were necessary to the story; here, however, each character who is introduced seems to serve a purpose – the prose, plot, and character development, then, are all concisely and purposefully crafted. That being said, however, and while much can be found laudable in the Crofts and Anne Elliot, and even Mrs. Smith, most of the characters, even the primary ones, do not seem deeply developed in such a way as to be truly engaging – to connect the reader with their stories and lives more personally. This could be because the larger theme of the novel is social change, rather than personal growth, but I still would have liked to have been more personally vested in Anne and Captain Wentworth’s interests. Anne certainly is an Austen heroine – so much so that Austen herself said that Anne was “a heroine who is almost too good for me.” She has her flaws, including being “advanced” in age and lacking somewhat in beauty, and also her openness to persuasion (hence the title of the book). Yet, she stands above her female contemporaries by being calm, collected, and rational, not to mention constant in her friendships and affections. She earns the admiration of not only Captain Wentworth, but also of Charles Musgrove and Mr. Elliot.
Captain Wentworth, too, is interesting as the representative of a “new gentleman.” He has excellent manners, he is considerate of those around him, and he is hard-working, brave, and independent. Also, instead of being born of land and title, he represents a shift in or softening of the potential for social, upward mobility in Britain at this time. As a naval officer, he worked hard to advance through the ranks and create wealth for himself, rather than “earn” it through inheritance. We can contrast him with Sir Walter Elliot who is largely a caricature of the very same titled, upper class nobility mentioned above. Austen’s wit and satire play heaviest on Sir Walter – she shows no mercy, really, when describing him as a vain, imbecile spendthrift whose dressing rooms are lined with mirrors and who refuses to be seen in public with any but those who are incredibly attractive. He is in many ways a sort of “dandy” to Captain Wentworth’s more masculine presence.
Still, although the characters do what they are supposed to, thematically, they do not reach me, personally, in the way that those of Sense and Sensibility or Pride and Prejudice have. Of course, there are many fans of Anne and Captain Wentworth out there, and of their romance, and I certainly see them as a good match – still, a small “something” – some kind of spark, could have given the more clinical craftsmanship of these characters the personable touch I was hoping for (with the exception of the Crofts – I really enjoyed them!).
4 – Extraordinary Prose/Style, enhancing the Story.
The story is told in the third-person omniscient, like most of Austen’s works. And, also like most of Austen’s narrators, this one is very closely allied with the main character, in this case, Anne Elliott. Although the narrator is not Anne, and not directly involved in the story, she does make judgments that are similar to Anne’s, while maintaining a point of view that is separated from the story by means of free indirect discourse. Keeping the narrator separate from but close to the character of Anne allows for slightly more honesty in describing the motives and personalities of the various characters, and also some distance between Anne and the others, which is necessary in creating tension and mystery (which we found out near the end of the story is rather important, as certain schemes have been developing behind the scenes). The narrative voice is softly satirical and at times subtly subversive, making it very interesting to compare with Austen’s first novel, Northanger Abbey, which was ultimately published at the same time (and which is much more obvious and raw in its humor and parodist tone). Some of Austen’s most tried and true devices, such as the “big reveal” being delivered via letter (in this case, Captain Wentworth’s letter to Anne; in a previous instance, Mr. Darcy’s letter to Elizabeth), as well as the motif of walking to advance a character’s conscience or growth, or to provide opportunity for necessary meetings between key players, are included here again and, again, work quite nicely.
Additional Elements: Setting, Symbols/Motifs, Resolution, etc.
4 – Additional elements improve and advance the story.
Jane Austen wrote Persuasion in 1816, while she was extremely ill and just before her death. The book would not be published (with Northanger Abbey) until 1818, after she had already passed away. Like many of her stories, this one is a novel of manners. Its focus is not so much on any one character’s growth, as would be the case in a coming-of-age story, but, instead, it is concerned with a group of primary characters who interact with one another and who are learning to navigate their lives within new rules and structures of a changing world. Although Austen is widely, and rightly, considered to be a writer of marriage plots which lead to happy endings, what some miss in their readings is Austen’s deep concern for the complexities of gender relations and class structures, both of which were rapidly changing in the early 19th century. Persuasion, while certainly constructed as a marriage plot, is absolutely concerned with the latter interests as well. It is clear that Persuasion is Austen’s later work, as it demonstrates great maturity and mastery of purpose and of craft. This is evidenced in her subtle but biting satire of the upper middle classes, represented primarily by the character of Sir Walter Elliot.
Persuasion questions the idea of “Separate Spheres,” which has been a traditional way of viewing male and female roles in Britain and much of Europe. Men would live in the public sphere, taking care of finances and legalities, while women were in charge of the private sphere, including tasks such as running the home and managing the servants. With the introduction of the Crofts, however, Austen challenges this dichotomy and offers the option of a true marriage partnership, where husband and wife share equal responsibility in both spheres. That the Crofts are the ideal married couple, and the one which it is presumed Anne and Captain Wentworth will evolve into, it is safe to assume that Austen, who never married, had rather progressive opinions about what a happy and functional marriage could be.
Austen is also often criticized for creating “bubble” worlds, stories which are narrowly confined to their own small towns, without concern for larger world issues. Yet, it cannot be denied that Austen is aware of the fact that Britain is at war with America and France during this time, and her representation of the British Navy and Naval Officers both pay dues to the “real” Navy and also introduce, in literature, a mirror of what, in real life, was becoming an ideal of manliness – a new gentleman who can rise, through the military, to fame and wealth, if not necessarily to title. Austen does indeed understand the world around her and, just as with Mansfield Park, she incorporates elements of that world into her stories in ways that are so natural, they hardly stand out. That these issues flow so neatly into the plot is a sign that Austen is an extraordinarily adept, socially aware novelist, not, as some would argue, of a writer oblivious to the world around her.
Suggested Reading for:
Age Level: High School +
Interest: Novel of Manners; Marriage; Separate Spheres; Persuasion; “The Gentleman”; Class; Social Mobility; Family.
“She had been forced into prudence in her youth, she learned romance as she grew older: the natural sequel of an unnatural beginning.”
“Let us never underestimate the power of a well-written letter.”
“How quick come the reasons for approving what we like.”
“Facts or opinions which are to pass through the hands of so many, to be misconceived by folly in one, and ignorance in another, can hardly have much truth left.”
“I hate to hear you talk about all women as if they were fine ladies instead of rational creatures.”
“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.”
“One man’s ways may be as good as another’s, but we all like our own best.”
“She hoped to be wise and reasonable in time; but alas! Alas! She must confess to herself that she was not wise yet.”
“Time will explain.”
“Unjust I may have been, weak and resentful I have been, but never inconstant.”