Persuasion by Jane Austen was probably a dangerous book for me to read after my break-up. It’s about a second-chance relationship between Anne Elliot and Captain Frederick Wentworth.
But, what the heck?
Rereading Austen’s novels was so healing for me. It felt like having a long conversation with a friend after not seeing them in a long while.
I discovered a newfound appreciation for this novel. I read it when I was younger and never made my way to a second reading until Spring 2020. I think it might be Austen’s most mature and sophisticated piece (which makes sense — she was at the height of her writing powers when she wrote it!). I’m sad that she died so young after finishing up with this novel; what other excellent books did we never get to read as a result?
I’m grateful for the work she did leave us and incredibly appreciative of Persuasion. Sometimes, we all need to read about second chances.
In Persuasion, Anne Elliot finds herself at a crossroads. Her once-wealthy, estate-owning father, Sir Walter, squandered the family fortune. Anne’s family is . . . well . . . they seem totally unrelated to kind, quiet, and practica Anne. Sir Walter and his other two daughters have excessive pride over their family name and appearances in society.
“Vanity was the beginning and the end of Sir Walter Elliot’s character, vanity of person and situation.”Austen 4
Now, he, Anne, and her older sister, Elizabeth, must put their estate — Kellynch Hall — for rent. Anne, as practical as they come, knows without a doubt that it must be done, but nevertheless, she grieves leaving her childhood home.
“A beloved home made over to others; all the precious rooms and furniture, groves, and prospects, beginning to own other eyes and other limbs.”Austen 46
While Sir Walter and Elizabeth plan to take rooms in Bath, Anne has plans to stay with her other sister, Mary. The latter resides in the neighborhood with her husband, his family, and their children. But, when Anne learns who will rent Kellynch Hall, she is consumed with anxiety.
Admiral and Sophia Croft plan to lease the estate. Problematically, Anne has a history with Sophia’s brother, Captain Frederick Wentworth. In their youth, Anne and Wentworth became attached and wanted to marry. However, Anne’s family disapproved of the match because Wentworth was a lowly soldier with little to recommend him to the prestigious Elliot family. Lady Russell, a close family friend of the Elliots and mentor to Anne, persuaded her to break the attachment, deeply wounding Wentworth . . . and Anne, as it happens.
“Anne Elliot, so young; known to so few; to be snatched off by a stranger without alliance or fortune; or rather sunk by him into a state of most wearing anxious, youth-killing dependence! It must not be, if by any fair interference of friendship, any representations from one who had almost a mother’s love, and mother’s rights, it would be prevented.”Austen 26
“Her attachment and regrets had, for a long time, clouded every enjoyment of youth; and an early loss of bloom and spirits had been their lasting effect.”Austen 27
Seven years later, Anne still loves Wentworth and remains unmarried. Wentworth, however, rose to acclaim and status during the Napoleonic wars. He is captain of his own ship, and Anne often reads about his success in the papers.
“Many a noble fortune has been made during the war.”Austen 16-7
Now that his sister and brother-in-law plan to rent Kellynch. At the same time, she remains in the neighborhood with Mary. She fears an awkward encounter will be inevitable.
“She would have liked to know how he felt as to a meeting. Perhaps indifferent, if indifference could exist under such circumstances. He must be either indifferent or unwilling. Had he wished ever to see her again, he need not have waited till this time; he would have done what she could not but believe that in his place she should have done long ago, when events had been early giving him the independence which alone had been wanting.”Austen 56-7
And, so it is! Almost immediately, Anne finds herself meeting Captain Wentworth again. He is very cold towards her and outwardly flirts with Mary’s sisters-in-law, Louisa and Henrietta.
“He had not forgiven Anne Elliot. She had used him ill; deserted and disappointed him; and worse, she had shewn a feebleness of character in doing so, which his own decided, confident temper could not endure. She had given him up to oblige others. It had been the effect of over-persuasion. It had been weakness and timidity.”Austen 59
Anne is a total boss, though. Even though she’s anxious in her heart, outwardly, she remains calm, relaxed, and collected. Captain Wentworth can’t help but notice her excellent sense, composure, and grace.
“She thought it could scarcely escape him to feel, that a persuadable temper might sometimes be as much in favor of happiness as a very resolute character.”Austen 114
Austen expertly delays romance between the two but nevertheless writes her characters into situation after situation where they cannot escape their deep feelings for one another.
“From this time Captain Wentworth and Anne Elliot were repeatedly in the same circle.”Austen 61
“A man does not recover from such a devotion of the heart to such a woman! — He ought not — he does not.”Austen 180
If you thought the delay between Simon and Daphne in Netflix’s Bridgerton was swoon-worthy, you ain’t seen nothing until you read the slow journey of Anne and Wentworth towards each other.
“Her eye half met Captain Wentworth’s; a bow, a curtsy passed; she heard his voice.”Austen 58
“The surprise of finding himself almost alone with Anne Elliot, deprived his manners of their usual composure.”Austen 77
“No, it was not regret which made Anne’s heart beat in spite of herself, and brought the colour into her cheeks when she thought of Captain Wentworth unshackled and free. She had some feelings which she was ashamed to investigate. They were too much like joy, senseless joy!”Austen 165
“He was more obviously struck and confused by the sight of her, than she had ever observed before he looked quite red. For the first time, since their renewed acquaintance, she felt that she was betraying the least sensibility of the two. . . . All the overpowering, blinding, bewildering, first effects of strong surprise were over with her. Still, however, she had enough to feel! It was agitation, pain, pleasure, a something between delight and misery.”Austen 173
Anne might be one of my favorite Austen heroines, too! She’s sensible but romantic. It’s as if she is a perfect amalgam of Marianne and Elinor Dashwood or Elizabeth and Jane Bennett. She’s balanced, intelligent, and strong while open and vulnerable at the same time.
“Anne, with an elegance of mind and sweetness of character, which must have placed her high with any people of real understanding, was nobody with either father or sister: her word had no weight; her convenience was always to give way: — was only Anne.”Austen 5
“Twelve years had changed Anne from the blooming, silent, unformed girl of fifteen, to the elegant little woman of seven and twenty, with every beauty accepting bloom, and with manners as consciously right as they were invariably gentle.”Austen 151
“Anne saw nothing, thought nothing of the brilliancy of the room. Her happiness was from within. Her eyes were bright, and her cheeks glowed, — but she knew nothing about it.”Austen 183
She also has a bit of medical expertise, which is unique for a heroine of a novel at this time! Usually, they are accomplished painters, musicians, or matchmakers. But, Anne has a knack for caring for the sick. After a fall, she nurses her nephew’s broken limb and knows when to fetch a surgeon in an emergency. Anne offers a type of therapy for a man in the throes of grief. In addition, she looks after her friend battling illness when she visits Bath. Even better? Wentworth admires her talents rather than seeing them as unfeminine.
“Both seemed to look to her for directions . . . Captain Wentworth’s eyes were also turned towards her.”Austen 108
One of the central debates in the book revolves around the question, “Who loves longest? Men or women?” Captain Wentworth’s friend, Captain Harville, argues to Anne that men love the longest and are more constant after hearing from Anne that it is women.
“All histories are against you, all stories, prose, and verse . . . I could bring you fifty quotations in a moment on my side the argument, and I do not think I ever opened a book in my life which had not something to say upon woman’s inconstancy. Songs and proverbs, all talk, of woman’s fickleness. But perhaps you will say, these are all written by men.”Austen 231
Anne’s reply is quite possibly the best rebuttal I’ve ever read:
“Perhaps I shall. — Yes, yes if you please, no reference to examples in books. Men have had every advantage of us in telling their own story. Education has been theirs in so much higher a degree; the pen has been in their hands. I will not allow books to prove anything. . . . I should deserve utter contempt if I dared suppose that true attachment and constancy were known only by woman. No, I believe you capable of everything great and good in your married lives. I believe you equal to every important exertion, and to every domestic forbearance, so long as — if I may be allowed the expression, so long as you have an object. I mean, while the woman you love lives, and lives for you. All the privilege I claim for my own sex (it is not a very enviable one, you need not covet it) is that of loving longest, when existence or when hope is gone.”Austen 231-3
I mean . . . MIC DROP!
Little does Anne know that Wentworth overhears this whole conversation. In my opinion, he responds to Anne in what is — the most remarkable literary love letter of all time.
“Dare not say that man forgets sooner than woman, that his love has an earlier death. I have loved none but you. Unjust I may have been, weak and resentful I have been, but never inconstant. You alone have bright me to Bath. For you alone I think and plan.”Austen 234
(Sorry, Mr. Darcy. . . but Captain Wentworth’s letter blows yours out of the water. Pun intended!).
And so, the relationship between Anne and Wentworth becomes Austen’s most feminist one; the two lovers operate on equal playing fields and respect each other as equals.
I shouldn’t be surprised that Austen was ahead of her time. She has that bent of genius that I find doesn’t get acknowledged in the way Shakespeare’s equal talent does.
Even in 2021, even with all her popularity and success, I think much more readers can acknowledge what a creative, talented writer Austen indeed was.