Friday, November 20, 2015

Persuasion by Jane Austen

I woke up one Sunday morning not too long ago feeling a need to read something extremely common-sensical, forthright, merciless, and edifying. For me, the go-to author when I want to read something of this description is Jane Austen. This may surprise those of you who are sick to death of girls who wear out their Pride and Prejudice DVDs swooning over the romantic dance scenes. But what I have always encountered in Austen's stories is not swoony romance but in fact a confronting picture of human sin and folly (I even made a Which Jane Austen Character Are You REALLY? quiz to underline that fact). If you actually read her novels, you'll find that she is witty, she is sharp, she is a merciless realist. As a matter of fact, I once heard that the Victorians considered her novels only suitable for men on account of their severe rationality.

For years Persuasion was my favourite Jane Austen novel. That changed a few years ago when I re-read Mansfield Park, and realised what a profound and insightful book it was. I was curious how Persuasion would compare when I came back to read it again.

In Persuasion we meet one of Jane Austen's most likeable heroines, Anne Elliot. Like Fanny Price of Mansfield Park, Anne is a quiet, unappreciated heroine who is often the voice of reason among a host of clueless supporting characters. Like Elizabeth Bennet of Pride and Prejudice, she's got a spark of irreverent wit. But Anne is unique in that she's a good bit older than any of the others, and the romance of her life did not have a happy ending. At twenty-seven, love is something which Anne looks back on wistfully, to when she was nineteen and in love with young naval officer Captain Frederick Wentworth. Sadly, not only did her conceited father, Sir Walter Elliot, baronet, disdain to be connected with a naval man, but Anne's mentor and mother-figure, Lady Russell, also intervened to persuade Anne to break off her engagement. Since then, Captain Wentworth has been fighting in the Napoleonic wars, and Anne has been nursing her broken heart in silence.

All this changes when the war ends, bringing an influx of Navy men--now wealthy and distinguished--back to England. Meanwhile Anne's family has fallen on hard times. Sir William refuses to cut costs, instead choosing to rent his country mansion to Admiral Croft, one of the returning officers. As it happens, Anne knows of Admiral Croft--he's married to Captain Wentworth's sister. Soon, Anne and Captain Wentworth are moving in the same social circle...with an ocean of awkwardness and hurt feelings lying between them, to say nothing of the Captain's apparent intention of courting bright young local thing Louisa Musgrove. With Anne both unable and unwilling to express the love in her heart, is she headed for a second, even more final unhappy ending?

Or is there hope for a second chance?

(Spoilers follow! If you haven't already read Persuasion, what are you waiting for?)

Indirect romance

In some ways I was surprised this time around to note how much more like a romance novel this book is than any of Jane Austen's others. It's fairly brief compared to Emma, for instance, which is nearly twice the length, and that means that the plot focuses closely on the awkward, indirect relationship between Anne and Captain Wentworth. Austen's other novels spend more time on subplots, and Emma, for instance, has much more to do with it's heroine's journey through repentance to maturity, than it has to do with her relationship with Mr Knightley. Persuasion, on the other extreme, has no significant plot arcs among the supporting cast, and its heroine already seems to have learned the majority of her life lessons in the backstory. This means a more concentrated, almost claustrophobic focus on the progress of the relationship itself, an effect which is heightened by the fact that Anne is forced to keep her feelings and thoughts mostly to herself for much of the story, partly because she cannot possibly voice them under the circumstances, and partly because no one is interested in hearing them.

In his terrific study guide to all Austen's major works, Miniatures and Morals: The Christian Novels of Jane Austen, Peter Leithart points out a unique aspect of the romance in this book. Most romance stories keep the two main characters apart either through outside force or by some internal misunderstanding or prejudice. Both of these are problems that can be solved--you might elope to evade the feuding families, or someone might come into the situation and show the characters to each other in their true light. In Persuasion no outside force is keeping the main characters apart: it's clear that Anne has matured enough to make up her own mind and will not be persuaded against Captain Wentworth again. The interior opposition is almost insuperable, not because they no longer have feelings for each other (they clearly do), but because of the hurt and awkwardness that carries over from their past. Actual interaction is nearly impossible.

The result is that they are forced to relate to each other indirectly, through intermediaries. Anne discovers Captain Wentworth's reaction to her breaking off the engagement through eavesdropping on a conversation he has with Louisa Musgrove--but at the same time, she (to say nothing of the reader!) is heartened when he makes kind comments about her to others. Anne goes on to prove her worth to him through a number of indirect means: from her quick and clear-headed reaction to Louisa Musgrove's accident and her advice on how to break the news to Louisa's parents, to the conversation with Captain Harville at the end in which she makes it quite clear to the listening Wentworth that she may have been persuaded to break off her engagement with him, but she continues to love him as much as she ever did.

In other words, the romance in Persuasion is both a good bit more prominent, and much more suppressed, than the romances in most of Austen's other novels. Leithart describes the tone of the story as "autumnal" and points out that most of the first half actually occurs in November. It's a very wistful, poignant story, with its rich backstory and unexpressed emotion.


Of course, one should hardly review Persuasion without saying something about the theme. But then, it's right there in the title. It is the title. All you have to do is grab your highlighter and highlight every time the word crops up.

Persuasion, and the ability to be persuaded, is the bone of contention between Captain Wentworth and Anne. She allowed herself to be persuaded to break off the engagement, and he is not quick to forgive. His flirtation with Louisa Musgrove seems likely to become serious when she boasts of not being easily persuaded against something she's set her mind to--and then ends entirely when he realises he has encouraged her into a piece of foolishness that nearly claims her life. This (the Midpoint, actually, of the novel, for those plotting nerds who are with us) is what causes Wentworth to reconsider his prejudice against persuasion, and by extension, to reconsider Anne. Meanwhile, as Leithart points out, Anne's conversation with Captain Harville at the end serves to make it clear that in one sense at least she has been unpersuadable: she has never given up loving Wentworth. Anne proves, in other words, that she is both able to be persuaded, and able to remain constant.

It's an interesting aspect of the book that Austen doesn't criticise Anne's persuadability. Persuasion and the capacity to be persuaded ends up coming out in a better light than stubbornness. While it's important that Anne should have the firmness of character to be constant rather than fickle in her emotions and her religious principles, it's also important that she be able to hear reason, or to use her own persuasive powers to smooth out possible disturbances or disruptions in social life. Persuasion, Austen concludes, is good or bad--depending. Anne explicitly comes to the belief that she could not have known that it would turn out to be a bad idea to accept Lady Russell's advice--and therefore she should not have acted differently, knowing what she did at the time. Interestingly, some years before writing Persuasion, Austen wrote to one of her nieces, Fanny, to persuade her also to break off a relationship. The niece, like Anne Elliot, was contemplating entering into an open-ended engagement with a young man who did not at that stage have the means of providing for a wife. Given that Austen believed her niece not seriously in love with the man, she strongly advised breaking it off. Persuasion could be seen as the story of what might have happened if the persuadee in such a situation really did have strong feelings for the man.


In contrast to the virtues of persuasion in small, social, or unforeseeable things, Austen also gives us a clear picture of the virtues of firmness and constancy in important things. This goes beyond Anne's inability to move on from Wentworth. In this book Austen was not trying to excuse stubbornness of the kind that would refuse to move on from an obviously impossible attachment. She was quite capable of poking merciless fun at such silliness, for example in Emma through the character of Harriet Smith. Rather, Anne's constancy does her credit because of who Wentworth is, especially in comparison to the other men she is surrounded by.

Like most of Austen's other heroines, Anne undergoes a red-herring courtship by a man who appears congenial, likeminded and upright on the surface, but quickly proves to be otherwise. In Persuasion, this is Anne's cousin William Elliot, who openly admires her and to whom Anne comes to believe Lady Russell would be happy to see her married--perhaps even exerting additional persuasion in that direction. Before this can happen, however, Anne's friend Mrs Smith exposes Mr Elliot as a heartless fortune-hunter who is worming his way into the Elliot family's affections purely in order to safeguard his inheritance. Yet even before this revelation, Anne has decided she cannot trust him:
He certainly knew what was right, nor could she fix on any one article of moral duty evidently transgressed; but yet she would have been afraid to answer for his conduct. She distrusted the past, if not the present. The names which occasionally dropt of former associates, the allusions to former practices and pursuits, suggested suspicions not favourable of what he had been. She saw that there had been bad habits; that Sunday travelling had been a common thing; that there had been a period of his life (and probably not a short one) when he had been, at least, careless in all serious matters.
As I mentioned in my review of Mansfield Park, Austen speaks of religious matters with great seriousness, but in veiled language that modern readers are apt to misunderstand. All the same, the reference to Sunday travelling is a fairly obvious clue that Anne Elliot should be taken to be a sincere Christian serious about setting aside the Lord's Day for rest and worship: it is an insuperable mark against this potential suitor that he evidently does not "remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy". Likewise, "serious matters" is one of Austen's code words for "Christian faith". She is saying that Anne believes Mr Elliot to be either an unbeliever or not serious enough about his faith to merit her love.

By contrast, Persuasion contains one of the most overt references in all of Austen's works to prayer--and it's Captain Wentworth whom we see praying, in a manner that suggests he does it often:
The tone, the look, with which "Thank God!" was uttered by Captain Wentworth, Anne was sure could never be forgotten by her; nor the sight of him afterwards, as he sat near a table, leaning over it with folded arms and face concealed, as if overpowered by the various feelings of his soul, and trying by prayer and reflection to calm them.
Anne's firm attachment to Captain Wentworth, in other words, and her refusal to be persuaded into transferring her affections to Mr Elliot, must be understood in the context of their respective characters. Captain Wentworth is a man of sincere faith, which impresses Anne deeply (as it ought); Mr Elliot is a man of low moral fibre, which repels her deeply (as it ought).

Land versus Sea

There's another aspect of Captain Wentworth's character which is favourably contrasted to one of the men surrounding Anne. Anne's father Sir Walter is an excessively vain man, and Austen reinforces this vanity and conceit in a hundred ways throughout the novel, from his shameless grovelling before his titled cousins to his inability to show gratitude to the Navy men for making his life of ease and self-indulgence possible. Perhaps the most telling moment comes when he lets his house to the lower-status but infinitely wiser Admiral Croft, who remarks that he had to get rid of most of the mirrors in the baronet's dressing-room: "there was no getting away from oneself." Besides persuasion, the novel's next main theme is obviously the difference between the old landed aristocracy--mercilessly skewered in Sir Walter's person as conceited and coddled--and the rising meritocracy of the landless Navy, lauded in the persons of Captain Wentworth, Admiral Croft, and the others as upright, courageous, self-sacrificial, and hard-working men of action.

The Navy was also used in Mansfield Park as a symbol of hard work, courage, endurance, and nobility, in the comparison of Fanny Price's responsible young brother William with the vapid dilettante Henry Crawford. This makes perfect sense when you realise that two of Austen's six brothers joined the Navy and distinguished themselves during the Napoleonic Wars. The Navy thus becomes a kind of shorthand in Austen's writings for true nobility rising out of hard work and self-sacrifice: she is clearly bursting with pride in her brothers. Though it's commonly complained by those who have only a superficial familiarity with her works that Austen was herself a vapid dilettante preoccupied with balls, amusements, and titles, she has never deserved such a slander. In Mansfield Park we had a taste of her notions when she unfavourably compared the idle Crawford with the diligent Price; Persuasion is in some ways a book-length and even more ruthless re-statement of the same opinion.


Persuasion, Austen opines, can be a good thing. It can smooth over social difficulties. It can be applied by wise older mentors wanting to protect their proteges from risky decisions. But it should never be allowed to seduce us away from a firm and principled love for right conduct and hard-working merit. Persuasion vindicates its humble, but steadfast heroine, for being firm exactly where she should be, and pliable exactly where she should be, despite the disapproval from time to time of all the people she loves and respects most in the world. Finding that balance between firmness and flexibility is one of Lady Wisdom's most delicate arts...and as always, I come away from this Jane Austen novel feeling that I have had a wonderfully deep and illuminating time learning from that lady.

I highly recommend that you rush out right now and find Persuasion on Amazon, The Book Depository, Project Gutenberg, or Librivox!

I have seen one film adaptation of Persuasion, the 1995 Amanda Root and Ciaran Hinds production, which I recall as being practically perfect in every way!


Unknown said...

I'm so glad you chose to review Persuasion- my sister has been urging me to read this one, but, unlike with other Jane Austen books, I just could not get into it. I think you've "persuaded" me to try again and give it a chance. :)

Suzannah said...

Oh, Hannah, I hope you do read it! It's a wonderful story :)

JJalsevac said...

I'm rather torn about Jane Austen. I might just need to read more of her work. I'm tempted to believe that she is over-hyped. I appreciate her exquisite late-Georgian early-Victorian prose and her edifying treatment of human conundrums in upper class British society, but I can't quite let myself believe all that her fans say of her. The problem is that she is so darn subtle. Its like listening to beautiful music turned down too low. In order to enjoy and properly appreciate it, you need to lean in close and strain to hear all the nuances and features of the piece. It may be worth the effort, but you can't help but think that it would have been more reasonable and effective to just turn up the sound. This may be particularly true for Persuasion, however.

In some ways Austen is the opposite of Dickens. Whereas Dickens went to the extremes of emotion, ranging far into the territory of the maudlin and absurd, Austen is so refined and restrained as to almost fade into monochrome. I suppose it is a clash of times and cultures for me. I have grown up in a world of bewildering sensory stimuli engineered to feed a post-Christian amoral hedonism, while she wrote in a world (as I imagine it) of quiet, refined, restrained, Christian aristocratic sophistication. Perhaps its not so much that her emotional volume is too low, perhaps its that my hearing has been deafened (I just watched Freaky Friday with Lindsay Lohan. I may be beyond repair).

While I agree that her emotional restraint puts her outside the realm of the stereotypical feminine novelist - despite her reputation - I still find that she is very feminine in her subject matter. Sir Walter Scott uses similar language, but I am glad that his exposition is mostly spent on his character's political intrigues and action adventures, and not on the heroine's romantic psychology. I hope I don't sound to brutal, but I just think there may be also a certain failure of interest on my part for Austen's works that may be ascribable to my sex, and not to her objective merit.

Suzannah said...

Joseph, I don't actually find Austen all that subtle and low-volume; but perhaps that's just me?

Certainly I agree that she is a very feminine writer in that her books are all about relationships. She is for my money the best female author out there, and one whose wisdom and clarity in those matters make her excellent reading for both men and women. It is worthwhile for men to experience a wise female perspective in this way, I think!


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