There is nothing in literature quite like the exquisite pleasure of a Jane Austen novel. But in the slow unfolding of her sixth and final novel, Persuasion (1817), Austen subjects her readers to something closer to exquisite agony. If Pride and Prejudice and Emma are the spring and summer of Austen’s novels, then Persuasion is their autumn, pensive and wistful.
Its heroine, Anne Elliot, not yet 30 years old, has arrived prematurely at the autumn of her life. Her youthful hopes of love and happiness appear lost. Early in the novel, as she walks across autumn fields on a November day, Anne reflects on the ‘apt analogy of the declining year, with declining happiness, and the images of youth and hope, and spring, all gone together’.
Jane Austen’s favourite novel, Samuel Richardson’s Sir Charles Grandison, contains the line: ‘Persuaders know not what they make such a [soft, gentle] person suffer.’ It is this suffering – of the soft, gentle Anne Elliot at the hands of persuaders – that lies at the heart of Persuasion. When she was only 19, Anne refused an offer of marriage from Frederick Wentworth. Now, nearly eight years later, Wentworth is back home in Somersetshire, returned from the war against Napoleon – and Anne is still in love with him. At 19 she’d been persuaded that Wentworth, without family connection or inheritance, would be a poor match for her beauty, intelligence and aristocratic breeding.
But much has changed in the ensuing years: success in the illustrious British navy has brought Wentworth a fortune and the rank of captain; disappointment and regret have faded Anne’s beauty and dampened her spirits. From this potent mix, Austen teases out an excruciating love story, complete with misunderstandings, rival lovers, painful awkwardness, and obstacles social, geographic and temperamental, that prevent Anne and Wentworth from speaking their feelings.
Austen’s own life had reached its autumn when she wrote Persuasion. When she began writing it in 1815 – two years before her death aged 41 – she was already suffering the debilitating illness (probably Addison’s disease) that would take her life. Perhaps for this reason, there is an intensity of emotion in Persuasion that is not found in Austen’s other novels.
Despite being written with Austen’s characteristic light touch, Persuasion is so filled with agonised longing and regret that it’s hard not to feel that Austen was pouring into her novel her own lifetime of unrealised passion. Austen’s singleness of focus – almost exclusively on the inner life of her heroine, through whom the events of the novel are filtered – brings an urgency and immediacy to Persuasion that makes us feel that in this, of all her novels, we come closest to Austen herself.
Although Anne Elliot is reserved, she is also a passionate woman: a deeply intelligent, bright, bookish heroine, outspoken about women’s powers of loving and their inequality of opportunity. When Anne exclaims near the end of the novel: ‘Yes, yes, 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’, it seems Austen is speaking from her own experience, as a writer and the anonymous author of four acclaimed novels.
For not until after her death was Austen officially acknowledged as the author of her novels, when her brother Henry arranged for the publication of Persuasion and Northanger Abbey with a ‘Biographical Notice of the Author’.
Despite not having the educational advantages of a man of her social class, Austen was well educated at home and for two years at school in Reading. Born in Hampshire in 1775, Austen was the seventh in a family of six boys and two girls. Her parents, Reverend George Austen and Cassandra Leigh-Austen, were keen readers. When their younger daughter Jane decided around the age of 12 to devote her spare time to writing, they encouraged her.
By the time she moved with her family to Bath on her father’s retirement in 1801, Austen had written drafts of most of her novels we know today. Following her father’s death in 1804, Austen, her mother and sister struggled financially and had no permanent home until 1809, when Austen’s brother Edward offered them a cottage on his estate in Chawton, Hampshire.
Settled at last and in need of money, Austen returned to her writing with renewed vigour. In 1811, aged 36, she published her first novel, Sense and Sensibility (‘By a Lady’), at her own expense. It was an immediate success and reviewers praised its morality and humour. With the publication of Pride and Prejudice in 1813 and Mansfield Park in 1814, Austen became an established author and her readers were desperate to know the identity of this wildly popular, new, anonymous novelist.
Although Austen never formally revealed her authorship in her lifetime, her secret was not well kept. Among those who discovered her identity was the Prince of Wales, who had become regent in 1811 when his father, mad King George III, was finally declared unfit to rule. The Prince Regent was a great admirer of Austen’s novels, particularly Mansfield Park, and, through his librarian, he condescended to grant his royal permission for Austen to dedicate any further books to him. Although Austen thoroughly disapproved of the dissolute prince, she dutifully dedicated her next novel, Emma, to him when it was published in 1815.
The same year, the war against Napoleon came to an end. The war had dominated Europe since its outbreak in 1793 and was the most significant world event of Austen’s day. Persuasion, which opens in mid 1814 and closes in 1815, is Austen’s only novel set during the time in which it was written. Although it doesn’t engage directly with the events of the day, they are potently felt through their influence on the lives of her characters, particularly the men like Wentworth who have chosen a career in the navy. Austen was well versed in contemporary naval exploits from two of her brothers who were naval men.
During Captain Wentworth’s absence from provincial England, the British navy has prevented Napoleon from invading Britain and broken his blockade. The return from war of successful men like Wentworth contributed to a shift in power away from the landed gentry towards the professions, a shift that was already being felt in England at this early moment in the Industrial Revolution. Persuasion is true to the spirit of its times: Anne Elliot is Austen’s only heroine who does not marry into the landed gentry; Wentworth her only hero who’s a modern, self-made, professional man.
Through Anne’s father Sir Walter Elliot, a vain and superficial baronet, Austen expresses the old-world attitudes to professional success. In a discussion of the navy, which has so recently been pivotal in Britain’s victory over Napoleon, Sir Walter concedes that ‘the profession has its utility’ – but he nevertheless objects to it strongly: ‘I have two strong grounds of objection to it. First, of being the means of bringing people of obscure birth into undue distinction.’ And his second ground of objection? A ‘sailor grows old sooner than any other man’. For the unnaturally youthful Sir Walter, any appearance of ageing is deeply offensive.
Although Austen’s novels famously focus on love and marriage, Austen herself never married. As far as we know, the closest she came to marriage was a proposal in 1802 from Harris Bigg-Wither, the heir of a Hampshire family. If she did accept his proposal, she changed her mind immediately, for the following morning she fled his country estate with her sister Cassandra. Austen also lived through the anguish of her sister’s doomed love when Cassandra’s long engagement ended tragically with the death of her fiance in the West Indies before they could be married.
So the two Austen sisters never found the social position and security that marriage alone could bring a woman in Regency England – and you can sense in Persuasion, through Anne Elliot’s passionate outspokenness about men’s opportunities, their education and the many books they’ve authored – in striking contrast to the confined nature of women’s lives – that Austen was beginning to question this state of affairs.
The place of women was an issue gaining momentum in Austen’s day: Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Women had been published in 1792 in the wake of the French Revolution, when Austen was 17. Wollstonecraft’s polemic was a hastily written attack on British MP Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790), which was a defence of monarchy and hereditary title, and became part of a heated debate about government at the time.
In Austen’s novels we see for the first time, compellingly in English, the power of stories about everyday people in everyday life, an innovation that distinguished her novels from the romantic melodramas so popular at the time. In a letter to the Prince Regent’s librarian Austen described her novels as ‘pictures of domestic life in country villages’. In a journal entry of 1826, Sir Walter Scott wrote that Austen had
‘a talent for describing the involvements and feelings and characters of ordinary life which is to me the most wonderful I have ever met with … the exquisite touch, which renders ordinary commonplace things and characters interesting from the truth of the description and the sentiment, is denied to me.’
Austen was widely read in her lifetime, but it was not until after the publication in 1870 of her nephew JE Austen-Leigh’s affectionate, glowing portrait of his aunt, A Memoir of Jane Austen, that her life and remarkable achievements were brought to public attention and she gained a cult following.
Persuasion was adapted to film in 1995and television in 2007. The 1995 BBC adaptation starring Amanda Root as Anne Elliot and Hinds as Wentworth perfectly conveys the subtlety and subdued drama of Austen’s last novel. That same year, Austen was the star of the Academy Awards when the film of Sense and Sensibility was nominated for seven Oscars. Director Ang Lee spoke of Austen’s universal appeal:
‘Austen tells us how much we have to suffer in order to find real love and truth as well as the pain of growing up. These conflicts, in one way or another, determine our lives. This is a universal issue.’