Ralph Waldo Emerson said about Jane Austen’s novels that they were ‘’imprisoned in the wretched conventions of English Society, without genius, wit or knowledge of the world.’’
It’s true that her books were set in the traditional Victorian society, but Austen’s study and satire of this very society is genius, and full of wit and knowledge. And the girl knew about love; she is almost always successful in making us believe, even 200 years later, that if there is love, happiness will follow.
Persuasion, to me, is a sublime piece of literary joy. It has all of Austen’s usual elements – fine prose (oh, swoon!) and sharp social criticism thrown together with a large, unique cast of characters, the most interesting of them all being Anne Elliot who takes centre stage as the protagonist of the novel. This, the last of Jane Austen novels, explores the impact of time on identity, on feeling and on love.
Anne Elliot is not your regular Jane Austen heroine, not that Jane Austen created any ‘regular’ heroines. At 27, Anne’s just older, more mature and surprisingly, not at all worried about marriage. She’s the quintessential good girl; delightful in her quiet usefulness and ruminating monologues that are sometimes subdued, sometimes sassy.
But Austen’s heroines are not meant to be perfect or idealistic, they are always real people with real struggles, usually against their own families and the society they keep, to become their best selves. Why Anne seems more idealistic is perhaps because she went through her defining encounter very early in life. And we cannot dismiss the fact that she was not so idealistic or prudent in her earlier years, we readers just have the advantage of meeting her as a more evolved, full-bodied person, both as a result of her age and her experiences.
This ‘defining encounter’ came for Anne at age 19 when still deeply in love with Frederick Wentworth, she was persuaded by Lady Russell, a maternal presence in her life, to break off the engagement on grounds of his lack of property and propriety. Lady Russell is more shrewd in her explanations to her disapproval of Wentworth than her father, Sir Walter Elliot. While Anne’s father is outrightly dismissive of him because of social status and money, Lady Russell points out the practical risks of having no money. And so, Anne was not only forced to deny her feelings for Wentworth, she was also persuaded into thinking she was doing it in ‘self-interest’. Maybe because it appealed to her idealistic nature.
The story begins 8 years after Anne was ‘persuaded’ to do ‘the right thing’. Anne is now 27, still unmarried, still very much in love with Wentworth. And as fate or Austen would have it, they meet again, and through missteps and stray flirtations steadily make their move towards each other. Only this time, Lady Russell is left out of the picture until it’s too late, as Anne gradually comes to see the error of Lady Russell’s judgements.
Persuasion is about their journey of coming together, because knowing Austen, it’s a given that she’d find a way to get them together.
The letter Wentworth slips to Anne in the penultimate chapter of the book is perhaps the most romantic literary letter ever. He writes, ‘’You pierce my soul. I am half agony, half hope. Tell me that I am not too late, that such precious feelings are gone forever. I offer myself to you with a heart even more your own than when you broke it almost eight years and a half ago.’’
So, the question is: Was Anne Elliot right or wrong to be persuaded at 19?
I guess there’s no correct answer. Practically speaking, Anne’s decision to be persuaded was, if nothing, understandable. It is only the most natural response of a teenage girl on probably the most important decision of her life.
But then maybe, just maybe, ‘Persuasion’ is about the intransitive persuasion of the heart and mind by merely weighing the situation and circumstance to reach a conclusion, which Anne does at the end of the novel in listening to her heart and going back to Wentworth.
The climax scene, more lovingly called the letter scene, stunningly marries Anne’s character arc to the love story of Anne and Wentworth. Anne’s personal breakthrough, which is to give her emotions the validity that was always been lacking, empowers the romantic breakthrough, and creates the momentous catharsis of the both. Insofar, Anne solves the novel’s problem and finally comes into her own through self-persuasion, which, I’d like to stress, is the right kind.