Jane Austen: Persuasion (1818)


After having read Mansfield Park and liking it so much (as you can see here) I decided to read Persuasion, which has been mentioned by so many in the comments as their favorite Jane Austen novel. The two books couldn’t be more different. I found Persuasion much more mature, more subtle, less witty, more elegant and a bit melancholic. It’s a perfect novel, there is nothing superfluous in it; the story and the characters are rounded and the way their emotions are shown is believable and very touching. There is a lot of sadness and heartache in this novel, but, since it’s an Austen novel, the good characters are rewarded. Despite of all of this, I’m not sure I prefer it to Pride and Prejudice or Mansfield Park. The earlier novels have some imperfections, but they also show an exuberance and wit, which I enjoy. From the point of view of the love story, I think Persuasion is my favourite and I like Anne Elliot and Captain Wentworth as much or even more as Elizabeth Bennet and Mr Darcy, but I missed some of the irony and playfulness of the earlier novels. On the other hand Persuasion is very subtle and I love the more urban settings, Lyme Regis and Bath, which add to its appeal.

Anne Elliot is one of three sisters who lost their mother at an early age and grew up with a silly and vain father who, on top of that, is a spendthrift. The most important things to him and his eldest daughter, Elizabeth, who is his female counterpart, are looks and titles. Being a baronet is of the utmost importance to him. The gentle and sensible Anne suffers a great deal through their coldness and superficiality and if it wasn’t for her mother’s old friend Lady Russell, who has become her mentor, she’d be bad off in a family of self-centred, pompous fools. Her younger sister Mary is not much better and at that a hypochondriac. When the novel starts the Elliots are forced to leave Kellynch Hall and find cheaper lodgings in Bath because Sir Elliot and Elizabeth have been spending far too much. The estate will be let to Admiral Croft and his wife. Mrs Croft is the sister of Captain Wentworth, the man Anne Elliot once loved and – persuaded by Lady Russell – refused to marry because he had no money and no status yet.

Eight years later Captain Wentworth is still as handsome and likable as he used to be, but he’s also very rich. Anne who has refused every suitor, soon regrets bitterly that she refused him. Captain Wentworth on his side is still hurt and resentful. He hasn’t forgotten Anne but cannot forgive her.

Persuasion is often called a “novel of second chances”, and that’s what the love story is all about, but Austen novels are always about much more than just love and marriage. Money and the criticism of a superficial society which attached too much worth to it are central themes. In Persuasion we find a similar situation as in Pride and Prejudice: a rich man with no male heir. The way this is handled is central to the society and the times in which Jane Austen lived but, thankfully, so different from now. Should Sir Elliot die, the estate would go to a distant male relative and not to one of his daughters. It seems as if the property was tied to the name only and not so much to the family. Someone who may never even have seen a house, may be living in it, while those who spent there all their lives have to move out.This is so incomprehensible for us, feels so incredibly unjust that whole series, like Downton Abbey, illustrating this practice, are sure to generate our interest.

A large part of the second story line in Persuasion focusses on this aspect. There is an heir, but he is proud and arrogant, and it is very painful for everyone to imagine he will be living in Kellynch Hall. However, since Sir Elliot is still a good-looking man, it’s not impossible that he remarries. If a younger wife would give birth to a son, the whole situation would look entirely different. While the love story is central the “hunt” for the estate and the ensuing complications are no less important.

I’ve read all of Jane Austen’s longer novels now and it’s quite fascinating to look back, to compare, find similarities, spot differences. I’m currently reading Claire Tomalin’s Jane Austen biography and it adds another layer. So much that is mentioned in Tomalin’s book can be found in the novels. I noticed that Jane Austen never describes London, but I didn’t know she’d never been there.

Nowadays I tend to jump from one author to the next, but it has a special appeal to read everything of one writer because the books are always linked and when you’ve read them all, you can see, that despite the differences, the individual books together form a whole. In Jane Austen’s case, reading all of her books, showed all of her novels are full of vivid portraits and character sketches, full of well-observed behaviour and show the many facets of romantic attachment. But while there are similarities in the themes, there is a huge difference in mood.

36 thoughts on “Jane Austen: Persuasion (1818)

  1. Hi Caroline, greetings from Guarulhos, Brazil.
    Thanks so much for your postings, I love read them. You describe each book so well, and you write beautifully. You inspire me to read them. As librarian, I think that is a marvelous gift you have. Congratulations for your blog.

  2. I would be interested to know whether Claire Tomalin’s book specifically treats of the (perhaps true) Austen myth that has sprung up lately, i.e., that “Persuasion” is an instance of Austen’s putting her own difficulty with marrying in a book of hers. There’s much been said in all the Austen biographical fictions which’ve sprung up that suggest this of “Persuasion” and other novels. And of course, Austen never married, so that adds some speculative fuel to the fire. I’d be interested in hearing a more pointed rejoinder to Tomalin from you once you finish her book, if you have the time.

    • I’m interested to find out as well and I will write about the biography. At present I’m still at the beginning.
      I start to wonder if not a lot of her fiction is some sort of escapism for herself. She’s critical and ironic but there is always the need to see her heroines happily married.
      I would really like to know why she didn’t get married.

      • Keep in mind that I’m thinking partially about some of those movies and made-for-tv items which have cropped up, not just written “biographical fictions” with Austen as the center of their speculation. You know Hollywood, give them a hint of a fact (i.e., that Austen was a loving unmarried aunt and family person, but never married herself, might have had an early disappointed romance or two) and they’ll run with it anywhere. I’m sorry, I wish I could think of the names of those productions, but I think at least one of them may have starred Anne Hathaway. For all we know, the real reasons Austen never married may have been a simple a prosaic lack of inclination, or desire to remain independent. But that’s not dramatic material, I guess. Hard to “play” on stage and screen!

        • I know which one you mean. Becoming Jane. I liked it but not as a movie about Austen but as a sad love story. i think it’s far from the truth, if that truth is even known.
          I saw that his name is mentioned in the biography but as a “flirt”.
          Yes, Hollywood tried to turn her into a tragic heroine but maybe she was happy just the way she was.

    • I can already tell, that it’s an interesting biography. Tomalin has an engaging style for what I saw so far.
      I did like Persuasion but it’s very different and rather sad, despite the happy ending. I think Violet’s comment is spot on.

  3. Austen was very ill when she wrote Persuasion and died the year after she struggled to complete it. I think the melancholy tone reflects her looking back at her life and regretting that she wasn’t able to marry (possibly Tom Lefroy), but she gave her characters the happy ending she knew she would never have. I’m glad you liked the book. It’s my favourite Austen novel.

    • I thought it’s admirable to be able to write like that while being so ill.
      I liked the melancholy tone a lot and I thought that while she wrote she must have had a feeling that she wasn’t going to live much longer. I don’t know enough about her life and why she didn’t marry. I hope the biography will tell me more.
      I could relate to Anne Elliot because I had a mother like Sir Elliott – everything always was about looks. It was awful. She would cast one glance at a person and within seconds you’d get to hear that the nose was too big, the complexion too sallow, the this was that . . . Unfortunately she wasn’t silly, which made her cruel on top of it all.

  4. Great commentary Caroline.

    As to reading multiple novels by a single author I agree. There are certain themes and connections that manifest themselves when one does this.It really opens up new vistas.

    Congratulations on reading all the Austen novels!

    • Thanks, Brian.
      When I studied I used to pick an author and read all of her/his novels one after the other. It’s an amazing experinece ti immerse yourself in someone’s work like that. Nowadays I try to pick up favorites at least once a year but reading two Austen novels in such a short time reminded me of how much I liked doing this and I think I’m going to repeat this. My blog my suffer a bit – or the readers may as many prefer variety. Yeah well . . .

  5. I’m so glad you liked Persuasion – it is my favourite of the Austen novels and I used to reread it every year. It is more poignant, subtle, sadder, as you so correctly observe, and it’s still got some good comedic moments. Did you read the two different endings – she hadn’t quite sorted out the final chapter?

  6. I love Persuasion but I know what you mean by her earlier novels having a certain playfulness about them–a freshness of young love I suppose. It would be fun, and I have always wanted to (and maybe some day will even get around to it…) read Austen in the order she wrote her books along with some supplemental reading–like the Tomalin bio–looking forward, too, to hearing what you think of that. Anyway…as for the project…well, when I have more free time, which you know how likely that is to happen in the short term!

    • The biography is very interesting and certainly adds a lot to reading her novel and their understanding.
      As Violet pointed out, yo can feel she’ knows she’s not got a lot of time left when she wrote this book. I liked it a great deal but in a way Mansfield Park was livelier and the wit in some of the others more ironic, although, there’s still plenty of that here.

  7. Beautiful review, Caroline. I know a little bit about the plot of ‘Persuasion’ after reading ‘The Jane Austen Book Club’, but I haven’t read the novel yet. I was thinking I will try to read a Jane Austen novel soon and I will try to read either ‘Sense and Sensibility’ or ‘Mansfield Park’, but now after reading your review and the comments from others that it is their favourite Jane Austen, I am thinking that I should read ‘Persuasion’ first. Congratulations on completing your Jane Austen adventure! That is really wonderful! Hope you are enjoying Claire Tomalin’s biography of Jane Austen. Happy reading!

    • Thanks, Vishy. It’s a bit sad not to have any of her major works left.
      I didn’t like Sense and Sensibilities, I found it very tiresome and struggled through it, but you may enjoy it more.
      I think both Mansfield Park and Persuasion are great. And very different. I could imagine you’d like Persuasion a great deal. It has a very special, tone and mood.
      I’m looking forward to read your thoughts on it. Or on any of the others. 🙂

      • Thanks Caroline. I will start with either ‘Persuasion’ or ‘Mansfield Park’. Yes, it is really sad when one of our favourite writers has written just a few books and we have read the last one. It makes us yearn for more.

        I have been wanting to ask you this for a while. What happened to the readalong of João Guimarães Rosa’s ‘The Devil to Pay in the Backlands’ (Grande Sertão: Veredas)? Did it go as planned and were the participants able to get their hands on a copy of the book?

        • I hope you will like them.
          I couldn’t make the readalong and in the end I lost track but I thing those who organozed it all managed to post on it (not in time though:) ). They all had different translations. I started with German then switched to French. I think Richard must have kept track.

          • Sorry to know that you couldn’t participate in the readalong, Caroline. But nice to know that the organizers posted about the book. I thought I will read the book sometime, but it looks like the online edition has been taken off from that site because of copyright issues. Now we have a strange situation where people want to read a book which is regarded as one of the great Latin American works, but it is not available anywhere.

            • How odd and sad that thye removed it.
              I will never understand why such great works from other countries are not available. I read maybe 100 pages and liked them a lot but I had my own readalong and when i put side a book for too long I don’t always pick it up again.

              • Nice to know that you liked the part of the book that you read, Caroline. I think I should search at the secondhand bookshops here and see whether I can find a secondhand copy. I hope the publishers get it back on print. It is frustrating when they try protecting the copyright but are not ready to put the book back on print.

  8. Persuasion won me over; I was very unsure about it at first, but then it blossomed as I read it and it’s definitely one of my favourites. I’m intrigued by your reading of all the Austen novels. There are very few authors I could do that with, but I think Austen would be one of them. Very interesting that mood should be the determinant, and yes, I can see that. Claire Tomalin may shed some light on the writing of each book and maybe help explain the mood of some, do you think?

    • I have still not found out why I was so drawn to jane Austen all of a sudden. Ususally I’m better and interpreting myself. I never really got her before or the appeal of Austen inspired novels.
      Persuasion is gentle, it’s lovely really but still pertinent.
      I hope the biography will answer a few of my questions.

  9. I’m so glad to see you enjoyed it! It’s one of my favorite Austen novels. I think the fact that it was the last book she finished before she died and was older when she wrote it explains why it’s different from P&P. There were still some funny moments, with Mary Musgrove and Sir Walter, so that kept it from being too melancholy for me.

    • I really enjoyed it. It wasn’t too melancholy but more than the others. I guess, as you say, we can feel that she’s older and knows she’s very ill.
      Now I have to move on to some more of the Austen inspired fiction.

  10. I need to read this one before the end of the year to finish my Jane Austen challenge. That and Emma. Will be back to read the review when I finish.

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