Title page of the original 1818 edition
Persuasion is Jane Austen's last completed novel, published posthumously. She began it soon after she had finished Emma and completed it in August 1816. Persuasion was published in December 1817, but is dated 1818. The author died earlier in 1817.
As the Napoleonic Wars come to an end in 1814, Admirals and Captains of the Royal Navy are put ashore, their work done. Anne Elliot meets Captain Frederick Wentworth after seven years, by the chance of his sister and brother-in-law renting her father's estate, while she stays for a few months with her married sister, living nearby. They fell in love the first time, but she broke off the engagement.
Besides the theme of persuasion, the novel evokes other topics, with which Austen was familiar: the Royal Navy, in which two of Jane Austen's brothers rose to the rank of admiral; and the superficial social life of Bath. It is portrayed extensively and serves as a setting for the second half of Persuasion. In many respects, Persuasion marks a break with Austen's previous works, both in the more biting, even irritable satire directed at some of the novel's characters and in the regretful, resigned outlook of its otherwise admirable heroine, Anne Elliot, in the first part of the story. Against this is set the energy and appeal of the Royal Navy, which symbolises for Anne and the reader the possibility of a more outgoing, engaged, and fulfilling life, and it is this worldview which triumphs for the most part at the end of the novel.
Persuasion is linked to Northanger Abbey not only by the fact that the two books were originally bound up in one volume and published together, but also because both stories are set partly in Bath, a fashionable city with which Austen was well acquainted, having lived there from 1801 to 1805.
Title as variation on a theme
Although readers of Persuasion might conclude that Austen intended "persuasion" to be the unifying theme of the story, the book's title is not hers but her brother Henry's, who named it after her untimely death. Certainly the idea of persuasion runs through the book, with vignettes within the story as variations on that theme. But there is no known source that documents what Austen intended to call her novel. Whatever her intentions might have been, she spoke of it as The Elliots, according to family tradition, and some critics believe that is probably the title she planned for it. As for Northanger Abbey, published at the same time, it was probably her brother Henry who chose that title as well.
On the other hand, the literary scholar Gillian Beer establishes that Austen had profound concerns about the levels and applications of "persuasion" employed in society, especially as it related to the pressures and choices facing the young women of her day. Beer writes that for Austen and her readers, persuasion was indeed "fraught with moral dangers";:xv she notes particularly that Austen personally was appalled by what she came to regard as her own misguided advice to her beloved niece Fanny Knight on the very question of whether Fanny ought to accept a particular suitor, even though it would have meant a protracted engagement. Beer writes:
Jane Austen's anxieties about persuasion and responsibility are here passionately expressed. She refuses to become part of the machinery with which Fanny is manoeuvering herself into forming the engagement. To be the stand-in motive for another's actions frightens her. Yet Jane Austen cannot avoid the part of persuader, even as dissuader.
Fanny ultimately rejected her suitor and after her aunt's death married someone else.:x–xv
Thus, Beer explains, Austen was keenly aware that the human quality of persuasion—to persuade or to be persuaded, rightly or wrongly—is fundamental to the process of human communication, and that, in her novel "Jane Austen gradually draws out the implications of discriminating 'just' and 'unjust' persuasion." Indeed, the narrative winds through a number of situations in which people are influencing or attempting to influence other people—or themselves. Finally, Beer calls attention to "the novel's entire brooding on the power pressures, the seductions, and also the new pathways opened by persuasion".:xv–xviii
Over seven years before the novel opens, Anne Elliot, then a lovely, thoughtful, warm-hearted 19-year-old, accepted a proposal of marriage from the handsome young naval officer Frederick Wentworth. He was clever, confident, and ambitious, but poor and with no particular family connections to recommend him. Sir Walter, Anne's vain father and her equally self-involved older sister Elizabeth were dissatisfied with her choice, maintaining that he was no match for an Elliot of Kellynch Hall, the family estate. Her older friend and mentor, Lady Russell, acting in place of Anne's late mother, persuaded her to break the engagement, for she, too, felt it was an imprudent match for one so young. They are the only ones who know about this short engagement, as younger sister Mary was away at school.
The Elliot family is in financial trouble, needing to reduce expenses. The family estate, Kellynch Hall will be let, and the family will settle in Bath until finances improve. Baronet Sir Walter, the vain, socially-conscious father and his eldest daughter Elizabeth look forward to the move. Second daughter Anne Elliot is less sure she will enjoy Bath, so she plans visits before joining her father and sister. Anne takes after her late mother, while Elizabeth takes after her father. The youngest sister Mary is married to Charles Musgrove of nearby Uppercross Hall, the heir to a respected local squire. Anne finishes tasks of moving out, and then visits Mary and her family; Anne is well-loved by her sister's children and in-laws. During that visit, Wentworth reenters Anne's life. Kellynch's tenants are Wentworth's sister, Sophia, and her husband, the recently retired Admiral Croft. Frederick visits his sister and soon meets the Uppercross family, including Anne.
The Musgroves, including Mary, Charles, and Charles's sisters, Henrietta and Louisa, are happy to welcome the Crofts and Wentworth. He is cautious with Anne, whom he says he almost does not recognize, and friendly and attentive with the Musgrove girls, who both respond in kind. Henrietta is engaged to her clergyman cousin Charles Hayter, who is away for the first few days that Wentworth joins their social circle. Both the Crofts and Musgroves enjoy speculating about which sister Wentworth might marry. Once Hayter returns, Charles Musgrove persuades his sister to talk with him again, leaving the field to Louisa. Anne still loves Wentworth, so each meeting with him requires preparation for her own strong emotions. She overhears a conversation where Louisa mentions to Wentworth that Charles first proposed to Anne, who turned him down. This is startling news to him.
Anne and the young adults of the Uppercross family accompany Captain Wentworth on a visit to two of his brother officers, Captain Harville, in the coastal town of Lyme Regis and Captain James Benwick. Benwick is in mourning for the death of his fiancée, Captain Harville's sister, and he appreciates Anne's sympathy and understanding. He admires the Romantic poets, whom Anne reads also. The visit to Lyme agrees with Anne, who shows the life and sparkle that Captain Wentworth remembered. She attracts the attention of a gentleman passing through Lyme, the heir to the Elliot estate, William Elliot, who broke ties with Sir Walter many years earlier. At first sight, he does not know who she is. The last morning of the visit, Louisa Musgrove sustains a serious concussion in a fall brought about by her impetuous behaviour with Wentworth. Anne coolly administers first aid and summons assistance. Wentworth is impressed with Anne, while feeling guilty about his actions with Louisa. He re-examines his feelings about Anne.
Following this sad accident, Anne travels to Bath with Lady Russell to join her father and sister, while Louisa, and her parents, stay in Lyme to recover her health at the Harvilles. Wentworth visits his older brother in Shropshire. In Bath, Anne finds that her father and sister adapt to their new home. They are flattered by the attentions of William Elliot, recently widowed, who has now reconciled with Sir Walter. Elizabeth assumes that he wishes to court her while Lady Russell more correctly suspects that he admires Anne. Although Anne likes William Elliot and enjoys his company, she finds his character disturbingly opaque.
Admiral Croft and his wife arrive in Bath, and soon afterward comes the news that Louisa Musgrove is engaged to Captain Benwick. Wentworth comes to Bath, where he is not pleased to see Mr Elliot courting Anne, which Anne notices. He and Anne renew their acquaintance. Anne visits an old school friend, Mrs Smith, who is now a widow living in Bath in straitened circumstances. Through her she discovers that behind his charming veneer, Mr Elliot is a cold, calculating opportunist who had led Mrs Smith's late husband into crippling debt, and as executor to her husband's will, takes no actions to improve her situation. Although Mrs Smith believes that he is genuinely attracted to Anne, she feels that his first aim is preventing Mrs Clay from marrying Sir Walter. A new marriage might mean a new son, and the end of Mr Elliott's inheritance. Anne is shocked and dismayed by this news.
The Musgroves visit Bath to purchase wedding clothes for Louisa and Henrietta, both soon to marry. Captains Wentworth and Harville encounter them and Anne at the Musgroves' hotel in Bath, where Wentworth overhears Anne and Harville conversing about the relative faithfulness of men and women in love. Deeply moved by what Anne has to say about women never giving up their feelings of love even when all hope is lost, Wentworth writes her a note declaring his feelings for her. Outside the hotel, Anne and Wentworth reconcile, affirm their love for each other, and renew their engagement. William Elliot leaves Bath with Mrs Clay, whose charming ways may yet attract him. Lady Russell admits she was wrong about Wentworth; she and Anne remain friends. Once Anne and Frederick marry, he helps Mrs Smith recover some of her lost assets. Anne settles into life as the wife of a Navy captain, to be called away when his country needs him.
Literary significance and criticism
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Persuasion is widely appreciated as a moving love story despite what has been called its simple plot, and it exemplifies Austen's signature wit and ironic narrative style. While writing Persuasion, however, Austen became ill with the disease that would kill her less than two years later. As a result, the novel is both shorter and arguably less polished than Mansfield Park and Emma since it was not subject to the author's usual careful retrospective revision.
Although the impact of Austen's failing health at the time of writing Persuasion cannot be overlooked, the novel is strikingly original in several ways. It is the first of Austen's novels to feature as the central character a woman who, by the standards of the time, is past the first bloom of youth. Austen biographer Claire Tomalin characterises the book as Austen's "present to herself, to Miss Sharp, to Cassandra, to Martha Lloyd . . . to all women who had lost their chance in life and would never enjoy a second spring."
The novel is described in the introduction to the Penguin Classics edition as a great Cinderella story. It features a heroine who is generally unappreciated and to some degree exploited by those around her; a handsome prince who appears on the scene but seems more interested in the "more obvious" charms of others; a moment of realisation; and the final happy ending. It has been said that it is not that Anne is unloved, but rather that those around her no longer see her clearly: she is such a fixed part of their lives that her likes and dislikes, wishes and dreams are no longer considered, even by those who claim to value her, like Lady Russell.
At the same time, the novel is a paean to the self-made man and the power and prestige of the Royal Navy. Captain Wentworth is just one of several upwardly mobile officers in the story who have risen from humble beginnings to affluence and status on the strength of merit and pluck, not inheritance. It reflects a period in Britain when the very shape of society was changing, as landed wealth (exemplified by Sir Walter) finds it necessary to accommodate the growing prominence of the nouveau riche (such as Wentworth and the Crofts). The success of two of Austen's brothers in the Royal Navy is probably significant. There are also clear parallels with the earlier novel Mansfield Park, which also emphasised, in a rather different context, the importance of constancy in the face of adversity, and the need to endure.
As in her earlier novels, Austen makes some biting comments about "family" and how one chooses whom to associate with. Mary Musgrove wants to nurse her sister-in-law Louisa but does not want to stay home to care for her own injured son if it means she will miss making the acquaintance of the famous Captain Wentworth. Elizabeth prefers the plebeian Mrs Clay to her own sister, who avidly seeks the attentions of Lady Dalrymple who is "amongst the nobility of England and Ireland."
Through her heroine's words, Austen also makes a powerful point about the condition of women as "rational creatures" who are nevertheless at the mercy of males when it comes to recounting their own story through history and books, nearly all of which have been produced by men, and many of which castigate women's "inconstancy" and "fickleness." "Men have had every advantage of us in telling their own story. . . the pen has been in their hands," Anne tells Captain Harville. "I will not allow books to prove anything." (Persuasion Volume 2 Chapter 11).
Austen ends her last completed novel on a note similar in many respects to Pride and Prejudice. The heroine marries for love, with money, moves into a social, emotional, and intellectual sphere worthy of her, and leaves her less admirable connections behind.
Sir Walter Elliot, Bt. — A vain, self-satisfied baronet, Sir Walter's extravagance since the death of his prudent wife 13 years before has put his family in financial straits. These are severe enough to force him to lease his estate, Kellynch Hall, to Admiral Croft and take a more economical residence in Bath. Despite being strongly impressed by wealth and status he allows the insinuating Mrs Clay, who is beneath him in social standing, in his household as a companion to his eldest daughter.
Elizabeth Elliot — The eldest and most beautiful daughter of Sir Walter encourages her father's imprudent spending and extravagance. She and her father regard Anne as inconsequential. Elizabeth wants to marry, and has run the Elliot household since her mother died a dozen years earlier.
Anne Elliot — The second daughter of Sir Walter is intelligent, accomplished and attractive, and she is unmarried at 27, having broken off her engagement to Wentworth over seven years earlier. She fell in love with Captain Wentworth but was persuaded by her mentor, Lady Russell, to reject his proposal because of his poverty and uncertain future and her youth. Anne rejects a proposal a few years later, knowing she loves Wentworth.
Mary Musgrove — The youngest daughter of Sir Walter, married to Charles Musgrove, is attention-seeking, always looking for ways she might have been slighted or not given her full due, and often claims illness when she is upset. She opposes sister-in-law Henrietta's interest in marrying Charles Hayter, who Mary feels is beneath them.
Charles Musgrove — Husband of Mary and heir to the Musgrove estate. He first proposed to Anne, who said no. He married Mary about five years before the story opens, and they have two sons. He is a cheerful man, who loves hunting, and easily endures his wife's faults.
Lady Russell — A friend of the Elliots, particularly Anne, of whom she is the godmother. She is instrumental in Sir Walter's decision to leave Kellynch Hall and avoid financial crisis. Years earlier, she persuaded Anne to turn down Captain Wentworth's proposal of marriage. She was the intimate friend of the mother, and has watched over the three sisters since their mother died. She values social rank and finds in Anne the daughter most like her late friend.
Mrs Clay — A poor widow with children, daughter of Sir Walter's lawyer, and companion of Elizabeth Elliot. She aims to flatter Sir Walter into marriage, while her oblivious friend looks on.
Captain Frederick Wentworth — A naval officer who was briefly engaged to Anne some years ago. At the time, he had no fortune and uncertain prospects, but owing to his achievements in the Napoleonic Wars, he advanced in rank and in fortunes. He is one of two brothers of Sophia Croft. He gained his step to post Captain, and gained wealth amounting to about £25,000 (around £2.5 million in today's money) from prize money awarded for capturing enemy vessels. He is an eminently eligible bachelor.
Admiral Croft — Good-natured, plainspoken tenant at Kellynch Hall and brother-in-law of Captain Wentworth. In his naval career, he was a captain when he married, present at the major battle of Trafalgar in 1805, then assigned in the east Indies, and holds the rank of rear admiral of the white.
Sophia Croft — Sister of Captain Wentworth and wife of Admiral Croft for the last 15 years. She is 38 years old. She offers Anne an example of a strong-minded woman who has married for love instead of money and who has a good life married to a Navy man.
Louisa Musgrove — Second sister of Charles Musgrove, Louisa, aged about 19, is a high-spirited young lady who has returned with her sister from school. She likes Captain Wentworth and seeks his attention. She is ultimately engaged to Captain Benwick, after recovering from her serious fall. Her brother Charles notices that she is less lively after suffering the concussion.
Henrietta Musgrove — Eldest sister of Charles Musgrove. Henrietta, aged about 20, is informally engaged to her cousin, Charles Hayter, but is nevertheless tempted by the more dashing Captain Wentworth. Once he returns home, she again connects with Hayter.
Captain Harville — A friend of Captain Wentworth. Wounded two years previously, he is slightly lame. Wentworth had not seen his friend since the time of that injury. Harville and his family are settled in nearby Lyme for the winter.
Captain James Benwick — A friend of Captains Harville and Wentworth. Benwick had been engaged to marry Captain Harville's sister Fanny, but she died while Benwick was at sea. He gained prize money as a lieutenant and not long after was promoted to commander (thus called Captain). Benwick's enjoyment of reading gives him a connection with Anne, as does her willingness to listen to him in his time of deep sadness. He might have enjoyed more time with her, before she returned to Lady Russell, but that did not occur. Benwick was with Louisa Musgrove the whole time of her recovery, at the end of which, they become engaged to marry.
Mr William Elliot — A distant relation ("great grandson of the second Sir Walter" when it is not stated from which Sir Walter the present one descends) and the heir presumptive of Sir Walter, Mr Elliot became estranged from the family when he wed a woman of lower social rank for her fortune and actively insulted Sir Walter. Sir Walter and Elizabeth had hoped William would marry Elizabeth Elliot. He is a widower, and now has interest in the social value of the title that he will someday inherit. He mends the rupture to keep an eye on the ambitious Mrs Clay. If Sir Walter married her, William's inheritance would be endangered. When Mr Elliot sees Anne by chance, and then learns she is Sir Walter's daughter, his interest is piqued: if he could marry Anne his title and inheritance likely would be secured because her father would less inclined to disinherit his daughter. Rumors circulate in Bath that Anne and he are attached.
Mrs Smith — A friend of Anne Elliot who lives in Bath. Mrs Smith is a widow who suffers ill health and financial difficulties. She keeps abreast of the doings of Bath society through news she gets from her nurse, Rooke, who tends the wife of a friend of William Elliot's. Her financial problems could have been straightened out with assistance from William Elliot, her husband's friend and executor of his will, but Elliot would not exert himself, leaving her much impoverished. Wentworth eventually acts on her behalf.
Lady Dalrymple — A viscountess, cousin to Sir Walter. She occupies an exalted position in society by virtue of wealth and rank. Sir Walter and Elizabeth are eager to be seen at Bath in the company of this great relation.
Allusions/references within other works
This novel is mentioned in a major 1969 novel, and inspired many modern versions or follow-on stories in the 21st century.
- Persuasion is referenced in John Fowles's The French Lieutenant's Woman (1969) (ISBN 0-224-61654-4).
- The plot of Helen Fielding's Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason (2001) (ISBN 978-0140298475) is loosely based on Persuasion — Fielding paid extra tribute by naming the fourth chapter of Reason straight after the Austen novel.
- Persuading Annie (2004) (ISBN 978-0060595807), a novel by Melissa Nathan, is a modern version of Persuasion.
- Persuasion is featured in the 2006 movie The Lake House, and provides a thematic background for the lovers.
- The novel is referenced in 2004 novel The Jane Austen Book Club, by Karen Joy Fowler, which was later made into a film by the same name in 2007.
- Persuasion is quoted in the movie The Book of Ruth which was made for television in 2004. (The Book of Ruth was originally a novel by Jane Hamilton.)
- Jane Austen in Scarsdale: Or Love, Death, and the SATs , (2007) (ISBN 978-0312366575) a novel by Paula Marantz Cohen, is based on the plot of Persuasion. Cohen's novel features Anne Ehrlich, a high school guidance counselor dealing with parents' and students' anxiety over college admissions.
- Captain Wentworth's Diary by Amanda Grange (2008) (ISBN 978-1440630385) is a parallel novel, showing the story from Wentworth's point of view.
- The Family Fortune, a novel by Laurie Horowitz (2009) (ISBN 978-0061868436), is a modern version of Persuasion set in Boston, Massachusetts.
- Echoes of Love (21st Century Austen #5) , a novel by Rosie Rushton (2010) (ISBN 978-1848120549), is a modern version of Anne's story, from Rusthon's 21st century Austen series.
- Persuade Me (Darcy & Friends #2) , a novel by Juliet Archer (2011) ((ISBN 978-1906931216) is a modern version of Persuasion.
- For Darkness Shows the Stars, a novel by Diana Peterfreund (2012) (ISBN 978-0062114372), is a post-apocalyptic retelling of Persuasion.
- Connivance (2013) (ISBN 978-1-4475-6190-3), a novel by Helen Baker, is a continuation of Persuasion in which clever Mrs Clay continues to charm both Sir Walter Elliot and Mr Elliot, his heir.
Persuasion has been the subject of several adaptations.
- 1960: Persuasion, BBC miniseries starring Daphne Slater as Anne and Paul Daneman as Captain Wentworth.
- 1971: Persuasion, BBC miniseries starring Anne Firbank as Anne and Bryan Marshall as Captain Wentworth.
- 1995: Persuasion, made-for-television film (which was released in US theatres by Sony Pictures Classics) starring Amanda Root as Anne and Ciarán Hinds as Captain Wentworth.
- 2007: Persuasion, teleplay, filmed in Bath in September 2006 for ITV1, with Sally Hawkins as Anne, Rupert Penry-Jones as Captain Wentworth.
- 2010: Persuasion, a musical drama adapted from the novel by Barbara Landis, using music from the period selected from Austen's own writings. It was performed by Chamber Opera Chicago first in 2010, and subsequently performed in New York and several cities in England, in 2013 and 2014.
- 2011: An adaptation for the stage of Persuasion by Tim Luscombe, was produced by Salisbury Playhouse in 2011.
- 2012: Persuasion, adapted for the theatre by Jon Jory, world-premiere at Onstage Playhouse in Chula Vista, CA
- Le Faye, Deirdre (1998). Jane Austen. New York: Oxford University Press. p. 90.
- Le Faye, Deirdre (2003). Jane Austen: The World of Her Novels. London: Francis Lincoln. p. 278. ISBN 978-0711222786.
- Austen, Jane; Beer, Gillian (1998). "Introduction". Persuasion. London: Penguin Classics. ISBN 978-0140434675.
- Tomalin, Claire (1999). Jane Austen: A Life. New York: Vintage. p. 256. ISBN 978-0679766766.
- Luscombe, Tim (2011). "Persuasion by Jane Austen". Salisbury UK. Retrieved 4 September 2015.
- Luscombe, Tim (2011). Persuasion by Jane Austen in a new adaptation. London: Oberon Books. ISBN 978-1849431934. Retrieved 4 September 2015.
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