Jane Austen: Persuasion
Introduction and notes by Elaine Jordan 2000
Wordsworth Classics 2007 (1993)
William Walter Elliot of his cousin Anne, after she modestly claimed minimal understanding of Italian: “one who is too modest for the world in general to be aware of half her accomplishments, and too highly accomplished for modesty to be natural in any other woman.” — Persuasion: Volume II Chapter 8
Persuasion was the last completed novel by Austen, published posthumously in December 1817 in tandem with Northanger Abbey, one of her earliest completed novels. It’s likely that neither of these novels appeared with the titles Austen gave them (Northanger Abbey was provisionally called Catherine, and in an earlier draft Susan) but I wonder how the public would have viewed Persuasion if it had in fact been published as The Elliots, a handle which Austen family tradition asserted was her original choice of working title.
You might assume then that this is a story of a family from the landed gentry when in fact our focus is almost entirely on just one member of that family, Anne Elliot. Unusually for Austen novels there is a substantial backstory, which is that eight years before Anne was ‘persuaded’ to refuse young Captain Wentworth’s offer of marriage on the grounds that he had few prospects ahead of him. She has since bitterly regretted her decision but, in common with many of women of her supposedly advanced age (she is 27 when this story opens), it’s more than just due the fear that she will never get another offer: it’s that she continues to have feelings for Frederick. On top of that, her father’s poor management of the Somerset estate has necessitated the letting out of the property so that the family can live in more straitened circumstances in Bath.
We are introduced to the Elliot family via Sir Walter Elliot’s snobbish obsession with status: he is an avid peruser of his entry in Debrett’s Peerage & Baronetage:
ELLIOT OF KELLYNCH HALL.
Walter Elliot, born March 1, 1760, married, July 15, 1784, Elizabeth,
daughter of James Stevenson, Esq. of South Park, in the county of
Gloucester, by which lady (who died 1800) he has issue Elizabeth,
born June 1, 1785; Anne, born August 9, 1787; a still-born son,
November 5, 1789; Mary, born November 20, 1791.
(As a side issue, I’m certain that Sir Walter’s wife died, not in 1800 as the text has it, but in 1801, if the story is to work as commencing in the summer of 1814 when peace in Europe had been declared after Napoleon’s first defeat and exile to Elba in April. The error, as I think it is, has to the best of my knowledge, never been queried or corrected.)
Of his daughters, the still unmarried Elizabeth is just as vain as he is, as is the married Mary (now Mrs Musgrove, with a young family), while the middle daughter Anne has, after her early disappointment, resigned herself to spinsterhood. Anne goes to stay with her married sister at the neighbouring Uppercross Cottage while her father, Elizabeth and Elizabeth’s scheming widow friend Mrs Penelope Clay settle into apartments in the still fashionable Regency city of Bath. It is while Anne is at her sister’s that she discovers that the wife of the new tenant of Kellynch Hall is related to her Captain Wentworth, now returned after a successful and lucrative stint in the Navy and residing temporarily at her ancestral home. We’ve had the first two stages of the standard romcom narrative — girl meets boy, then girl loses boy — alluded to the opening chapters; it now takes the rest of this relatively short novel to establish whether the crucial final stage (girl and boy get back together again) pans out as it is expected to.
The problem with expectations is that we can fail to engage with characters. Fairytale elements (the modest, disregarded daughter with her two vain sisters; the handsome, rich but ‘unattainable’ suitor; the foolish parents in the form of Sir Walter and, initially, Anne’s confidante Lady Russell) and a romance plotline can conspire against our truly wanting favoured protagonists to succeed because they are worthy and likeable. Does Persuasion move us as it ought?
I think, apart from a hasty (though revised) and slightly pat conclusion, that it does. It’s very possible, given that Anne fits the less proactive ideal of womanhood prevalent in the early 19th century, that the reader feels sympathy, maybe for some readers even empathy, for Anne’s very sterling qualities. This is how Austen characterises Anne’s feelings when faced with the less than open nature of her charming but conniving cousin Mr Elliot (in Volume II chaper 5):
She prized the frank, the open-hearted, the eager character beyond all others. Warmth and enthusiasm did captivate her still.
Mr Elliot is decidedly not open. Earlier (in the previous chapter) Anne –whom everyone is assuming will marry her cousin — declares:
“My idea of good company, Mr Elliot, is the company of clever, well-informed people, who have a great deal of conversation, that is what I call good company.”
Who can fail to agree with Anne’s love of the open-hearted, of clever, well-informed people? Who can disagree with the caddish cousin’s fair assessment of her as both modest and accomplished, especially when compared to some of more pushy individuals whom we are introduced to, who overestimate their abilities?
Persuasion is also very much a novel which is more rooted in the England of a particular time and of particular places than her previous novels. True, Northanger Abbey was also partly set in Bath, but here we get a more microscopic sense of the spa, especially the social contrasts between fashionable and less-regarded areas of the town. We get references to Box Hill in Surrey (Emma), Portsmouth (Mansfield Park) and to London (Pride and Prejudice for example) but I can’t think of another Austen novel where we are treated to the author voicing personal approval in the manner in which she warmly describes the real seaside resort of Lyme Regis, when visited by Anne’s party out of season (in early 1815).
Lyme is a crucial setting for a major inciting incident, the accident that befalls her sister-in-law Louisa Musgrove; it is here that Anne comes into contact with both of the men whose names are, or will be, linked to hers, Frederick Wentworth and William Elliot. And it is here that she believes she has witnessed confirmation that it will remain all over between her and the captain, her captain. In some ways Wentworth is a typical Austen hero, strong but silent until the end when he is moved to declare his love, but we are meant to prize his trustworthiness, his achievements and his constancy, even in the event of a belated recognition of the worth of the heroine.
Persuasion has a few subplots which the new reader will no doubt enjoy for themselves, strands which involve minor characters who interact with Anne and which invariably show her in a good light. This edition includes the cancelled chapter that originally took the place of chapters 10 and 11 of Volume II. It is really interesting to see how Austen, even as she neared the end of this novel, was still playing around with motivations and resolutions, and how — while an improvement — there is still a sense of a rushed tying up of loose ends, as if she was desperate to complete the narrative in the middle of 1816, just a year before her premature death.