This 1818 novel is, indeed, an admirable work. It is old-fashioned, yes, in its style, Telling the reader more often than showing him. And it is obvious in its story, for we know the ending from the first chapter.
But the wisdom of the author, the understanding of the human character, the ability to create drama out of ordinary events, and the awareness that the realty of this distant world does not require detailed, realistic settings—all this contributes to the effectiveness of this novel two centuries after it was written.
This is the story of Anne Elliot, who was persuaded by her family to turn down a handsome but the poor naval officer, Captain Wentworth, whom she truly loved. Now, by apparent accident, he has returned to her life, a rich sea captain, and her heart is all aflutter. Will she or won’t she? Will they or won’t they?
Much stands in their way. Her father Sir Walter Elliot. Her adviser Lady Russell. Her sisters, beautiful Elizabeth and vain Mary, both of whom are more concerned with their own lives. And a lost cousin, Mr. Elliot, who has his own ideas about Anne’s future. Indeed, Anne herself is in her own way, having lost the bloom of youth along with her only love.
In a work of less than 300 pages, the reader absorbs this life of a distant era. There is no world here outside family estates, a seaside town, and the resort of Bath. There is no London, no Napoleon on the minds of these middle-class families concerned mainly with money, love, reputation, and social niceties.
The novel is helped tremendously by secondary characters. There are Anne’s father and sisters Elizabeth and Mary at the Kellynch mansion, which they lease for financial reasons to Admiral Croft and his wife, sister to Captain Wentworth. At Uppercross Hall, where Anne Elliot stays because her sister Mary is married to Charles Musgrove, there is Mr. Musgrove, his wife, and daughters Louisa and Henrietta. There are also Captain Harville and Captain Benwick at the sea resort of Lyme Regis, where Louisa has an accident and is cared for by them. Finally, at Bath, Anne renews her acquaintance with a former schoolmate, Mrs. Smith, who will play a key role, as well as members of a vain Bath society, from Lady Dalrymple to Colonel Wallis.
What is also admirable are the three settings: the mansions of Kellynch and Uppercross, the sea resort of Lyme, and the social life at Bath. Austen uses the first to establish family relationships, the second to introduce the change in Anne’s outlook and appearance, and the third to contrast the veneer of social life against Anne’s common sense. But in each case there is a solid, physical setting—because of the reaction of the characters to it rather than a result of detailed descriptions.
The general tone of this novel is typical Austen, a critique of family values and social values, which are contrasted here with Anne’s integrity and Captain Wentworth’s steadfastness. Whereas, Sir Walter and Elizabeth spend the family fortune and endanger Kellynch, while Mary thinks only of herself. And Mr. Elliot is a scoundrel in pursuit of money and a peerage, while a friend of Elizabeth’s, Mrs. Clay, is in pursuit of Sir Walter. Only the mourning Captain Benwick, a fan of literature, is serious-minded, and the reader wonders if he might be the right person for Anne.
The various characters introduce delays or obstacles to Anne finding happiness, some of their encounters being natural and some coincidental or arbitrary. The latter reflect, I think, the lack of technical skills among novelists of two centuries ago. It may also reflect a more optimistic view of life than is common among authors today. Thus, we are more alert to an author’s intrusion to make a happy ending.
Perhaps this is also because we look back on that era as one of innocence, and certainly women like Austen did not have a knowledge of the world that women have today, much less the novelistic skills. And yet, she did understand character, which is the strength of any good novelist.
What Austen did not understand in those early days of the novel, however, is how a satisfying ending is achieved. It requires logical actions by the characters. Here, however, the climactic moment of decision is too abrupt. And achieved by, of all things, a letter. The letter is set up by a pertinent conversation, but then is followed by a lovers’ dialogue that recaptures/explains the past rather than advances the situation dramatically. And this is followed by a round-up chapter that carries the various characters’ lives into the future, to give the reader a sense of completeness. This is my main, and primary, criticism of this work.
The theme of “persuasion” is present but not strong. Apparently, Austen’s brother named the novel when it was published after her death. Yes, Anne was persuaded to refuse Captain Wentworth’s proposal, and many repercussions followed, especially her unhappiness and decline, and the family’s reaction to the change in her. And Mr. Elliot’s pursuit of money and a peerage involves deceptive persuasion. Not to forget members of Bath society trying to persuade each other of their importance.
This work ranks below Pride and Prejudice for me, but is far better than Sense and Sensibility. Perhaps because Austen as an author has become here more aware of how to portray people’s strengths and weaknesses. And perhaps because she understands the impact on readers of a troubled heroine achieving happiness, as she gains control of her own destiny. Just as the spinster Austen did. Indeed, there is a striking passage toward the end when Anne announces why she will not accept literature’s treatment of the emotional lives of women: “Ys, if you please, no reference to examples in books. 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.”
And this stands out for a woman who published her first book anonymously, a woman who had to earn her recognition in a male world. But, like her choice of a heroine, she believed in herself, in her own convictions. Yet was there a limitation? One does wonder how much the happy ending is because such endings were expected in her day.
Here is a perceptive view of all of Austen’s works by Adelle Waldman: “Austen’s portraits of people and their milieus are animated not by satirical malice or mere eagerness to entertain but by a sense of moral urgency. With a philosophical eye, she sees through fuss and finery and self-justification. She gives us a cast of characters and then zeroes in, showing us who and what is admirable, who is flawed but forgivable, who is risible and who is truly vile. Delivered economically, her judgments are not only clever but perspicacious, humane, and, for the most part, convincing. Her real subject is not the love lives of barely post-adolescent girls, but human nature and society. Austen wrote stories that show us how we think.”
Waldman is critical of Persuasion, however, which she says is not a polished work. That its characters are superficially good, middling, or bad, that its satire hits easy targets, and that it is not as funny as her other novels. That it is popular because its heroine is not young, appears defeated, and yet triumphs. All of which, she grants, may be because Austen did not have a chance to follow her usual practice of refining her initial draft, of producing a richer and deeper work. She died, at age 41, before she had the chance to do this.
And perhaps that is why I feel that much of the story is told to us rather than dramatized, rather than shown to us. Perhaps I am evaluating the intent of Austen as much as the achievement. But I am still impressed by this work. And it makes me more interested than before in Emma and Northanger Abbey. For I understand why this “old-fashioned “ novelist has such passionate followers. (March, 2014)