Jane Austen: Persuasion

by Jennifer Bryce

I always have a book, usually fiction, on the go. More often than not, it has been written in the last ten years. But, particularly at this time of Coronavirus pandemic, I sometimes feel as though the 21st century world is ‘too much with me’ and it’s refreshing to immerse myself in the fiction of another time. I was delighted to realise that I hadn’t ever read Jane Austen’s last completed novel, Persuasion.

For me, the plot was not particularly important and, although this is the only time when Austen’s protagonist, at the ‘elderly’ age of twenty-eight, is ‘mature’, the story was not all that different from other Jane Austen books I have read. I disagree that it is a ‘Cinderella’ story — as described by Penguin Classics: Anne, the point-of-view character/ protagonist is past her first ‘bloom’, but although her father has been unwisely frivolous with his money, she is hardly down and out. She has turned down the proposal of Captain Wentworth on the advice of her family because he is not of sufficiently high social status. When, after eight years absence, he returns from the Napoleonic Wars, wealthier, and therefore, in the eyes of her family, more desirable, it is thought that Anne is probably no longer of interest to him. But we learn, at the end of the novel, that their feelings have been smouldering throughout that long separation.

What intrigued me was the way that Austen uses place only as a back-drop to her writing — there isn’t much description at all. The hard rocks and solid wall of Lyme Regis do indeed provide a fitting setting for poor Louisa’s accident (allowing the opportunity for her to fall in love with Captain Benwick, who reads poetry to her during her convalescence), and the society of Bath seems to clatter on, appropriately supporting confabulations, gossip and liaisons. But the heart of this novel, for me, was the conversation — particularly, the internal dialogue of Anne. Austen also uses a device known as free indirect discourse, where a character’s voice (Anne’s) is mediated by the voice of the author.

For example, early in the book, Anne’s internal dialogue when, for the first time since their engagement was broken, she must see Captain Wentworth, who has returned from fighting in the Napoleonic Wars (Mary is her sister):

“It’s over! it’s over!” she repeated to herself again and again, in nervous gratitude. “The worst is over!”

‘Mary talked, but she could not attend. She had seen him. They had met. They had been once more in the same room.

‘Soon, however, she began to reason with herself, and try to be feeling less. Eight years, almost eight years had passed. since all had been given up. How absurd to be resuming the agitiation which such an interval had banished into distance and indistinctness!’

And near the end of the novel, Anne and Captain Wentworth secretly exchange words and looks, indicating that their feelings for each other are, if anything, stronger than ever. Charles Musgrove politely escorts Anne home, although he has an appointment at a gun shop, when, out of the blue, Captain Wentworth comes into view. By happy coincidence he is able to continue to escort Anne home, enabling Musgrove to go to his appointment. When Anne arrives home:

‘At last Anne was home again, and happier than any one in that house could have conceived. All the surprise and suspense, and every other painful part of the morning dissipated by this conversation, she re-entered the house so happy as to be obliged to find an alloy in some momentary apprehensions of its being impossible to last. An interval of meditation, serious and grateful, was the best corrective of everything dangerous in such high-wrought felicity; and she went to her room, and grew steadfast and fearless in the thankfulness of her enjoyment.’

Other marriages in the book seem to be concerned with property — as indeed many marriages in that time must have been. But in the final chapter Austen outlines what are surely her own views of marriage: ‘When any two young people take it into their heads to marry, they are pretty sure by perseverence to carry their point, be they ever so poor, or ever so imprudent, or ever so little likely to be necessary to each other’s ultimate comfort. This may be bad morality to conclude with, but I believe it to be the truth; and if such parties succeed, how should a Captain Wentworth and an Anne Elliot, with the advantage of maturity of mind, consciousness of right, and one independent fortune between them, fail of bearing down every opposition?’

I am sure that there has been much discussion about the title, Persuasion. It is insinuated in conversations throughout the book, or it may be that the maturity gained through the long break in their relationship has strengthened the couple with a kind of universal persuasion — this is no frivolous liaison.