Jane Austen’s Persuasion is a subtle, small-scale novel compared to her other five classic works. The cast of characters is slimmer and there are fewer humorous moments. The heroine, 27-year-old Anne Elliot, is mostly serious and introspective; she doesn’t even speak a word of dialogue until Chapter 5. Even so, Persuasion captivated me upon my first reading. Every few years, I return to Austen’s insightful rendering of a nuanced love story that begins on a note of regret – a story that expertly reveals the values of 18th century English society.
Anne Eliot may not display the buoyant wit of Pride and Prejudice’s Elizabeth Bennet or even the amusing foolishness of Emma’s heroine, but she is quietly wise and has an intriguing past. Persuasion begins seven years after her great error of judgement: ending her engagement to Captain Frederick Wentworth, a man she deeply loved. She was convinced (persuaded) by her dear family friend, Lady Russell, that his seafarer position and modest financial means made him an unsuitable match. Years later, Anne still sees the social logic of this choice, but she is remorseful. The descriptions of her faded youth and lost bloom are about more than her age – they point to the pained, retreated state of her heart.
Unlike Pride and Prejudice’s famous build up to arrival of a mysterious new suitor, the early pages of Persuasion tensely lead up to Wentworth’s return. Before he is even on scene, Anne learns that his is now a successful Captain and eligible bachelor. In contrast, the overspending of Anne’s father has brought her and her family into reduced circumstances.
As Austen brings Wentworth and Anne back into each other’s spheres, she masterfully executes the interplay between Anne’s interior reactions and external events. “A thousand feelings” rush on Anne as she meets Wentworth again – and that multitude is believable. This reunion is barely long enough for a bow, curtesy and a half glance – yet it is enough to get Anne’s mind whirling with insecurity, curiosity and “nervous gratitude.” She is so overcome by this layered rush of conflicted feelings that she retreats for “a long application of solitude and reflection to recover her.” It’s a response she repeats often (and one I relate to).
Anne tries to assure herself that her interactions with Wentworth are helping her recover from him, but her inner dialogues prove otherwise. She is hurt when he ignores or insults her, and she lights up at his moments of warmth. Wentworth’s thoughts are not as accessible to the reader as Anne’s, but there is enough proof that he follows a similar track of feigning indifference when he is indeed angry with her and also drawn to her.
Since the Anne and Wentworth do not dare to talk directly to each other about their shifting feelings, they become intense observers of each other. Two key scenes involve overheard conversations about the endurance of affection – how it is possible to love “when hope is gone,” and how one “does not recover from such a devotion of the heart.” Subdued instances of recognition pass between them, rekindling their affections even as they struggle with anger and jealousy. Wentworth recognizes Anne’s practical, calm compassion, for instance – and she, in turn, recognizes his steadfastness of character. They are familiar to each other, yet strange – the same, yet different.
In a clever move, Austen has a long-awaited romantic revelation expressed in the most interior of mediums: a letter. This only amplifies its dramatic impact (I think I gasped when I first read the scene). To use Austen’s own description, it is a letter “not to be soon recovered from” – and it finally triggers a face-to-face outpouring of happy honesty.
Let me pause on the word recover, though. Austen uses it several times in Persuasion, and the process of recovery plays a key role in awakening characters to new possibilities and ways of thinking. Whether people are regaining composure, healing from physical illness or grief, or gaining back their possessions, they are greatly changed.
This is the case with Wentworth and Anne upon their reunion. They do not go back to who they were years earlier, or try to pretend as if the agony of separation never happened. Instead, they own up to their errors of action and inaction as they begin again. Their mutual forgiveness creates a stronger, more truthful foundation for partnership than they perhaps ever had, even in the ripe bloom of young love.
Yes, I read Persuasion every few years partially so I can swoon over its smart, tender romantic plot. I also read it, however, to remember that any process of recovery is a process of rediscovery.
I can even say that Persuasion brings the word resurrection to my mind. After all, as Merriam-Webster notes, this word can be basically defined as: “the act of causing something that had ended or been forgotten or lost to exist again, to be used again.” I see reminders of the risen Christ – boldly owning to his wounds – in this intimate tale of a love renewed. (Christian Courier article – May 9, 2016)