Anne is the overlooked middle daughter of a narcissistic and extravagant baronet, Sir Walter Elliot of Kellynch Hall. Unique among Jane Austen heroines, she is 27 years old and seemingly a confirmed spinster. Her mother is dead; her father and older sister are vain and selfish; and her younger sister is a manipulative hypochondriac but not quite so beyond Anne's influence as her elder sister Elizabeth. With few to appreciate her sweet nature and refined, elegant mind, Anne is somewhat isolated, living in a narrow social sphere where she "was nobody with either father or sister; her word had no weight; her convenience was always to give way; she was only Anne."
Lady Russell, her late mother's best friend, is her only real confidante; and although Lady Russell means well and usually shows good judgment, she tends to put great value on social position when forming her opinions. This preference has caused Anne great sorrow: eight years before, Lady Russell persuaded her to break off an engagement with an ambitious, promising young naval officer named Frederick Wentworth—a man whom Anne loved passionately—on the grounds that his poverty, lack of social rank and connections made him an unsuitable choice.
Anne has never fully recovered from the heartbreak, and begins Persuasion as a sad figure, disregarded by her father, "wretchedly altered" in looks, looked down upon by her elder sister and resigned to an empty life. When Captain Wentworth, now grown rich from prize money, returns from the Napoleonic Wars to visit the neighborhood, Anne is at first pained; however, his presence gradually sets her life in motion again.
Persuasion manifests a significant shift in Austen's attitude toward inherited wealth and rank. Elsewhere in her writing, salvation for the heroine comes in the form of marriage to a well-born gentleman, preferably wealthy and at least her equal in social consequence. Elizabeth Bennet, for example, who has little money of her own, refuses the hand of a financially secure but unbearable young clergyman; dallies briefly with a penniless (and, as it turns out, utterly worthless) army officer; and finally marries Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy, who has a great estate, a Norman-sounding name, and ₤10,000 a year. Emma Woodhouse, already wealthy and secure, marries 37-year-old George Knightley, a man not only from her own class, but from her extended family; and Marianne Dashwood loses her heart to a charming young wastrel, but then marries the virtuous Colonel Brandon, a man of property twice her age. Anne Elliot's "true attachment and constancy" to a dashing, self-made young outsider distinguishes her from all her sister Austen heroines.
In Persuasion hereditary aristocracy is held up to ridicule: the 'eligible' suitor, Mr. Elliot, turns out to be a scoundrel, while the village patriarch, Sir Walter Elliot, is not only "foolish" and "spendthrift" but also absurdly proud of his baronetcy. To fill the void, Austen sets up a sort of rising meritocracy made up of successful officers in the Royal Navy. Sir Walter and his daughter Elizabeth cede their position as landed gentry when they let Kellynch Hall to Admiral Croft. As Austen makes clear, these Elliots are unworthy of their high social status; they are also unworthy of Anne, a natural aristocrat who languishes, disregarded, until she reunites with Captain Wentworth. In effect, Anne escapes from her meaningless life as an Elliot to join the Navy.
Lady Russell overvalues inherited social class and so underestimates Wentworth and nearly cheats Anne of her only chance of happiness. When circumstances prove both the captain's worthiness and the corresponding worthlessness of fellow suitor Mr. Elliot, Lady Russell herself—the very voice of benevolent propriety—has to "admit that she had been pretty completely wrong and to take up a new set of opinions and hopes."
Film and TV portrayals of Anne Elliot
- 1960: Daphne Slater, BBC series
- 1971: Anne Firbank, BBC series Persuasion (1971 series)
- 1995: Amanda Root, made-for-television Persuasion (1995 film)
- 2007: Sally Hawkins, ITV1 Persuasion (2007 film)
- Tomalin, Claire. Jane Austen: A Life. New York: Vintage, 1997, p. 256
- Austen, Jane. Persuasion. Boston: Roberts Brothers, 1894, pp. 8-9
- Tanner, Tony. "In Between: Persuasion". Jane Austen, Harvard University Press, 1986, pp. 208-249
- Green, Sarah K. "A state of alteration, perhaps of improvement", May 1, 2003 (undergraduate essay, Brown University) (full text)
- Austen, Jane. Persuasion; quoted in Tony Tanner's "In Between: 'Persuasion'", ibid., p. 248