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Title page of the original 1818 edition
Title page of the original 1818 edition
Persuasion is Jane Austen's last completed novel. She began it soon after she had finished Emma and completed it in August 1816. She died, at age 41, in 1817; Persuasion was published in December of that year (but dated 1818).
Persuasion is linked to Northanger Abbey not only by the fact that the two books were originally bound up in one volume and published together, but also because both stories are set partly in Bath, a fashionable city with which Austen was well acquainted, having lived there from 1801 to 1805.
Besides the theme of persuasion, the novel evokes other topics, such as the Royal Navy, in which two of Jane Austen's brothers ultimately rose to the rank of admiral. As in Northanger Abbey, the superficial social life of Bath—well known to Austen, who spent several relatively unhappy and unproductive years there—is portrayed extensively and serves as a setting for the second half of the book. In many respects, Persuasion marks a break with Austen's previous works, both in the more biting, even irritable satire directed at some of the novel's characters and in the regretful, resigned outlook of its otherwise admirable heroine, Anne Elliot, in the first part of the story. Against this is set the energy and appeal of the Royal Navy, which symbolises for Anne and the reader the possibility of a more outgoing, engaged, and fulfilling life, and it is this worldview which triumphs for the most part at the end of the novel.
More than eight years before the novel opens, Anne Elliot, then a lovely, thoughtful, warm-hearted 19-year old, accepted a proposal of marriage from the handsome young naval officer Frederick Wentworth. He was clever, confident, and ambitious, but poor and with no particular family connections to recommend him. Sir Walter, Anne's fatuous, snobbish father and her equally self-involved older sister Elizabeth were dissatisfied with her choice, maintaining that he was no match for an Elliot of Kellynch Hall, the family estate. 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 an imprudent match that was beneath Anne.
Now 27 and still unmarried, Anne re-encounters her former love when his sister and brother-in-law, the Crofts, take out a lease on Kellynch. Wentworth is now a captain and wealthy from 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 Anne Elliot.
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.
Although readers of Persuasion might conclude that Austen intended "persuasion" to be the unifying theme of the story, the book's title is not hers but her brother Henry's, who named it after her untimely death. Certainly the idea of persuasion runs through the book, with vignettes within the story as variations on that theme. But there is no known source that documents what Austen intended to call her novel. Whatever her intentions might have been, she spoke of it as The Elliots, according to family tradition, and some critics believe that is probably the title she planned for it. As for Northanger Abbey, published at the same time, it was probably her brother Henry who chose that title as well.
On the other hand, the literary scholar Gillian Beer 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. Beer writes that for Austen and her readers, persuasion was indeed "fraught with moral dangers"; she notes particularly 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. Beer writes:
Jane Austen's anxieties about persuasion and responsibility are here passionately expressed. She refuses to become part of the machinery with which Fanny is manoeuvering herself into forming the engagement. To be the stand-in motive for another's actions frightens her. Yet Jane Austen cannot avoid the part of persuader, even as dissuader.
(Fanny ultimately rejected her suitor and after her aunt's death married someone else.)
Thus, Beer explains, Austen was keenly aware that the human quality of persuasion—to persuade or to be persuaded, rightly or wrongly—is fundamental to the process of human communication, and that, in her novel "Jane Austen gradually draws out the implications of discriminating 'just' and 'unjust' persuasion." Indeed, the narrative winds through a number of situations in which people are influencing or attempting to influence other people—or themselves. Finally, Beer calls attention to "the novel's entire brooding on the power pressures, the seductions, and also the new pathways opened by persuasion".
Anne Elliot is the overlooked middle daughter of the vain Sir Walter, a spendthrift baronet who is all too conscious of his good looks and rank. Anne's mother, a loving, intelligent woman, is long dead. Anne's older sister, Elizabeth, takes after her father, and her younger sister, Mary, is a nervous, attention-seeking fretful woman who is married to Charles Musgrove of nearby Uppercross Hall, the heir to a rustic but respected local squire. None of her family can provide much companionship for the refined, sensitive Anne, who is still unmarried at 27 and seems destined for spinsterhood. Nearly seven years after breaking her engagement and subsequently turning down a proposal from Charles Musgrove, who went on to marry her sister, she has still not forgotten Frederick Wentworth.
Wentworth reenters Anne's life when Sir Walter is forced by his own financial irresponsibility to rent out Kellynch Hall, the family estate. He and Elizabeth move to pricey rental lodgings in the fashionable resort of Bath, while Anne remains behind in Uppercross with her younger sister's family. Kellynch's tenants turn out to be none other than Wentworth's sister, Sophia, and her husband, the recently retired Admiral Croft. Wentworth's successes in the Napoleonic Wars have won him promotions and wealth amounting to about £25,000 (around £2.5 million in today's money) from prize money awarded for capturing enemy vessels, and he is now an eminently eligible bachelor. The Musgroves, including Mary, Charles, and Charles's younger sisters, Henrietta and Louisa, are happy to welcome the Crofts and Wentworth. He is deliberately cool and formal with Anne, whom he describes as altered almost beyond recognition, but extremely friendly and attentive with the Musgrove girls, who both respond in kind. Although Henrietta is nominally engaged to her clergyman cousin Charles Hayter, nothing is official, and both the Crofts and Musgroves, who know nothing of Anne and Frederick's previous relationship, enjoy speculating about which sister Wentworth might marry. All this is hard on Anne, who has spent the last several years bitterly regretting that she was ever persuaded to reject him and realises that he still holds her refusal against her. To avoid watching him keep company with the Musgrove sisters, particularly Louisa, whom he seems to prefer, she does her best to stay out of his way. When they do meet, his conspicuous indifference nearly breaks her heart.
The sad slow pace of Anne's life suddenly picks up when the younger adult members of the Uppercross family decide to accompany Captain Wentworth on a visit to one of his brother officers, Captain Harville, in the coastal town of Lyme Regis. There Anne meets yet a third officer, Captain James Benwick, a passionate admirer of the Romantic poets, who is in mourning for the death of his fiancée, Captain Harville's sister, and appreciates Anne's sympathy and understanding. The new location, new acquaintances, and fresh ocean air all agree with Anne, who begins to regain some of the life and sparkle that Captain Wentworth remembered, and she attracts the attention of another gentleman, who turns out to be the Elliots' long-estranged cousin, her father's heir, William Elliot. Louisa Musgrove sustains a serious concussion in a fall brought about by her own impetuous behaviour. Anne coolly administers first aid and summons assistance. Wentworth is both confused and impressed, and begins to re-examine his feelings about Anne.
Following this near-tragedy, Anne relocates to Bath to be with her father and sister, while Louisa stays in Lyme to recover her health at the Harvilles. In Bath Anne finds that her father and sister are as shallow as ever, obsessed with rank and wealth, and flattered by the attentions of William Elliot, recently widowed, who has now successfully reconciled with his uncle, Sir Walter. Elizabeth assumes that he wishes to court her while Lady Russell more correctly suspects that he admires Anne. However, although Anne likes William Elliot and enjoys his company, she finds his character disturbingly opaque, while admitting to herself that his admiration has done a great deal to lift her spirits.
Admiral Croft and his wife arrive in Bath, and soon afterward comes the news that Louisa Musgrove is indeed engaged—but not to Captain Wentworth. The lucky man is Captain Benwick, who had continued living with the Harvilles during Louisa's convalescence there. Wentworth also comes to Bath, where he is not pleased to see Mr. Elliot courting Anne, and he and Anne begin to tentatively renew their acquaintance. Anne also takes the opportunity to reunite with an old school friend, Mrs. Smith, a once prosperous matron who is now a widow living in Bath in straitened circumstances. Through her she discovers that behind his charming veneer, Mr. Elliot is a cold, calculating opportunist who had led Mrs. Smith's late husband into crippling debt. Although Mrs. Smith believes that he is genuinely attracted to Anne, it appears that his real aim in making up to the Elliots has been to keep an eye on the ingratiating Mrs. Clay, whom he worries that Sir Walter may take it into his head to marry. A new marriage might mean a baby boy, and the end of Mr. Elliott's inheritance. Although Anne is shocked and dismayed by this news, it helps to confirm her belief that she is the best judge of what will constitute her own happiness.
Ultimately, the Musgroves visit Bath to purchase wedding clothes for their sisters Louisa and Henrietta (who is now officially engaged to Charles Hayter). Captain Wentworth and his friend Captain Harville encounter them and Anne at the Musgroves' Bath hotel, where Wentworth overhears Anne and Harville conversing about the relative faithfulness of men and women in love. Deeply moved by what Anne has to say about women never giving up their feelings of love even when all hope is lost, Wentworth writes her a note declaring his feelings for her. Anne and Wentworth reconcile, affirm their love for each other, and renew their engagement. The story ends less well for Anne's father and sister. They are both jilted by Mr. Elliot, who succeeds in persuading Mrs. Clay to become his mistress. Lady Russell admits she was wrong about Wentworth; she and Anne remain friends; and Wentworth helps Mrs. Smith recover some of her lost assets. Nothing remains to blight Anne's happiness—except the prospect of another war.
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Persuasion is widely appreciated as a moving love story despite what has been called its simple plot, and it exemplifies Austen's signature wit and ironic narrative style. While writing Persuasion, however, Austen became ill with the disease that would kill her less than two years later. As a result, the novel is both shorter and arguably less polished than Mansfield Park and Emma since it was not subject to the author's usual careful retrospective revision.
Although the impact of Austen's failing health at the time of writing Persuasion cannot be overlooked, the novel is strikingly original in several ways. It is the first of Austen's novels to feature as the central character a woman who, by the standards of the time, is past the first bloom of youth. Austen biographer Claire Tomalin characterises the book as Austen's "present to herself, to Miss Sharp, to Cassandra, to Martha Lloyd . . . to all women who had lost their chance in life and would never enjoy a second spring."
The novel is described in the introduction to the Penguin Classics edition as a great Cinderella story. It features a heroine who is generally unappreciated and to some degree exploited by those around her; a handsome prince who appears on the scene but seems more interested in the "more obvious" charms of others; a moment of realisation; and the final happy ending. It has been said that it is not that Anne is unloved, but rather that those around her no longer see her clearly: she is 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 Lady Russell.
At the same time, the novel is a paean to the self-made man and the power and prestige of the Royal Navy. Captain Wentworth is just one of several upwardly mobile officers in the story who have risen from humble beginnings to affluence and status on the strength of merit and pluck, not inheritance. It reflects a period in Britain when the very shape of society was changing, as landed wealth (exemplified by Sir Walter) finds it necessary to accommodate the growing prominence of the nouveau riche (such as Wentworth and the Crofts). The success of two of Austen's brothers in the Royal Navy is probably significant. There are also clear parallels with the earlier novel Mansfield Park, which also emphasised, in a rather different context, the importance of constancy in the face of adversity, and the need to endure.
As in her earlier novels, Austen makes some biting comments about "family" and how one chooses whom to associate with. Mary Musgrove wants to nurse her sister-in-law Louisa but doesn't want to stay home to care for her own injured son if it means she will miss making the acquaintance of the famous Captain Wentworth. Elizabeth prefers the plebeian Mrs. Clay to her own sister, yet avidly seeks the attentions of Lady Dalrymple who is "amongst the nobility of England and Ireland."
Through her heroine's words, Austen also makes a powerful point about the condition of women as "rational creatures" who are nevertheless at the mercy of males when it comes to recounting their own story through history and books, nearly all of which have been produced by men, and many of which castigate women's "inconstancy" and "fickleness." "Men have had every advantage of us in telling their own story. . . the pen has been in their hands," Anne tells Captain Harville. "I will not allow books to prove anything." (Persuasion Volume 2 Chapter 11).
Austen ends her last completed novel on a note similar in many respects to Pride and Prejudice. The heroine marries for love, with money, moves into a social, emotional, and intellectual sphere worthy of her, and leaves her less admirable connections behind.
Sir Walter Elliot, Bt. — A vain, self-satisfied baronet, Sir Walter's extravagance since the death of his prudent wife 13 years before has put his family in financial straits. These are severe enough to force him to lease his estate, Kellynch Hall, to Admiral Croft and take a more economical residence in Bath. Despite being strongly impressed by wealth and status he is attracted in some way to Mrs Clay, who is beneath him in social standing.
Elizabeth Elliot — The eldest and most beautiful daughter of Sir Walter encourages her father's imprudent spending and extravagance. She and her father routinely put their interests ahead of Anne's, regarding her as inconsequential.
Anne Elliot — The second daughter of Sir Walter is highly intelligent and, although accomplished and attractive, is unmarried at 27, having broken off her engagement to Wentworth eight years previously. She fell in love with Captain Wentworth but was persuaded by her mentor, Lady Russell, to reject his proposal because of his poverty and uncertain future.
Mary Musgrove — The youngest daughter of Sir Walter, married to Charles Musgrove, is attention-seeking, always looking for ways she might have been slighted or not given her full due, and often claims illness when she is upset. She greatly opposes sister-in-law Henrietta's interest in marrying Charles Hayter, who Mary feels is beneath them.
Charles Musgrove — Husband of Mary and heir to the Musgrove estate. He had wanted to marry Anne but settled for Mary (much to the disappointment of the Musgrove family, and to his misfortune) when Anne refused him due to her continued love for Wentworth.
Lady Russell — A friend of the Elliots, particularly Anne, of whom she is the godmother. She is instrumental in Sir Walter's decision to leave Kellynch Hall and avoid financial crisis. Years ago, she persuaded Anne to turn down Captain Wentworth's proposal of marriage. While far more sensible than Sir Walter Elliot, she shares his concern for rank and connections and did not think Wentworth good enough for Anne because of his inferior birth and financial status.
Mrs. Clay — A poor widow, daughter of Sir Walter's lawyer, and intimate 'friend' of Elizabeth Elliot. She aims to flatter Sir Walter into marriage, while her oblivious friend looks on.
Captain Frederick Wentworth — A naval officer who was briefly engaged to Anne some years ago. At the time, he had no fortune and uncertain prospects, but owing to much success in the Napoleonic Wars, his situation has greatly improved. One of two brothers of Sophia Croft.
Admiral Croft — Good-natured, plainspoken tenant at Kellynch Hall and brother-in-law of Captain Wentworth.
Sophia Croft — Sister of Captain Wentworth and wife of Admiral Croft. She offers Anne an example of a strong-minded woman who has married for love instead of money.
Louisa Musgrove — Second sister of Charles Musgrove, Louisa, aged about 19, is a high-spirited young lady who has recently returned with her sister from school. Captain Wentworth admires her for her resolve and determination, especially in contrast to Anne's prudence and what he sees as Anne's lack of conviction. She is ultimately engaged to the morose and romantic Captain Benwick, and has changed such that she now likes what he likes and has become much less rambunctious.
Henrietta Musgrove — Eldest sister of Charles Musgrove. Henrietta, aged about 20, is informally engaged to her cousin, Charles Hayter, but is nevertheless tempted by the more dashing Captain Wentworth.
Captain Harville — A friend of Captain Wentworth. Severely wounded two years previously and discharged at half-pay, he and his family have settled in nearby Lyme.
Captain James Benwick — A friend of Captain Harville. Benwick had been engaged to marry Captain Harville's sister Fanny, but she died while Benwick was at sea. Benwick's loss left him melancholic and a lover of poetry. His enjoyment of reading makes him one of the few characters in the story to find an intellectual connection with Anne, and it is implied that he might have an interest in her, but Benwick ultimately becomes engaged to Louisa Musgrove.
Mr. William Elliot — A relation and the heir presumptive of Sir Walter, Mr. Elliot became estranged from the family when he wed a woman of much lower social rank for her fortune, though Sir Walter and Elizabeth had hoped William would marry Elizabeth Elliot. He is now a widower, and (wanting very much to inherit the title and the money that accompanies it, to help pay his debts) he mends the rupture to keep an eye on the ambitious Mrs. Clay. If Sir Walter married her, William's inheritance would be endangered. When Mr. Elliot meets Anne by accident, his interest is piqued: if he could marry Anne his title and inheritance likely would be secured because her father would be more disinclined to disinherit his daughter. Rumors circulate that Anne and he are engaged.
Mrs. Smith — A friend of Anne Elliot who lives in Bath. Mrs. Smith is a widow who has suffered ill health and financial difficulties. She keeps abreast of the doings of Bath society through news she gets from her nurse, Rooke, who also works for a friend of William Elliot's. Her financial problems could have been straightened out with some assistance from William Elliot, her husband's former friend, but Elliot would not exert himself, leaving her much impoverished. Wentworth eventually acts on her behalf.
Lady Dalrymple — A viscountess, cousin to Sir Walter. She occupies an exalted position in society by virtue of wealth and rank. Sir Walter and Elizabeth are eager to be seen at Bath in the company of this great relation.
Persuasion has been the subject of several adaptations:
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