#38. Persuasion by Jane Austen
Persuasion is Jane Austen’s last completed novel. She began it soon after she had finished Emma, starting in August of 1815 and completing it in August 1816. She died, aged 42, in July of 1817; Persuasion was published in December that year (but dated 1818).
Persuasion is connected with Northanger Abbey not only by the fact that the two books were originally bound up in one volume and published together two years later, but also because both stories are set partly in Bath, a fashionable city with which Jane Austen was well acquainted, having lived there from 1801 to 1805.
Besides the theme of persuasion, the novel evokes other topics, such as the Royal Navy. The significance here is that two brothers of Jane Austen used persuasion to later achieve the rank of admiral. As in Northanger Abbey, the superficial social life of Bath—well known to Jane Austen—is portrayed extensively, and serves as a background for the second volume. Persuasion marks a clear break with Austen’s previous works, for the warm attitude of positive characters she usually portrays is in stark contrast to this novel’s often dull heroine. Haughtiness and a lack of cordiality—of which Mr Darcy, in Pride and Prejudice is an extreme example—are characteristics not previously encountered in the heroine.
The novel is described in the introduction to the Penguin Classics edition as a great “Cinderella” story. All the similarities between the fairy story and Austen’s novel are there; a heroine who is generally unappreciated by those around her; a handsome prince who arrives but seems more interested in the “more obvious” charms of the Musgrove girls than the more steady charms offered by Anne; a moment of realization and the final happy ending when those who did not appreciate have time to realize what they have lost. It has been said that it is not that Anne is unloved, more that those around her no longer see her, she is such a fixed part of life that her likes and dislikes, wishes and dreams are no longer considered, even by those who claim to appreciate her, like Lady Russell.
Through her heroine’s words, Austen makes pointed remarks about the condition of women as ‘rational creatures’ at the mercy of males (only) recording history, writing books, etc., while castigating women’s “inconstancy” and “fickleness”. “Men have had every advantage of us in telling their own story. …the pen has been in their hands. I will not allow books to prove anything” (Persuasion Volume 2 Chapter 11). She ends the novel with the similar theme to Pride and Prejudice, where the heroine leaves the others behind with marriage.
At the same time, the novel is a paean to the self-made man. Captain Wentworth is just one of several naval officers in the story who have risen from humble beginnings to affluence and status on the strength of merit and luck, not by inheritance. It marks a time where the very roots of society were changing, as ‘old money’ (exemplified by Sir Walter) had to accommodate the rising strength of the nouveau riche (such as Wentworth). The success of Austen’s own two brothers in the Royal Navy is probably significant. There are also clear parallels with the earlier novel Mansfield Park as there are inherent and sustained messages of the importance of constancy in the face of adversity and of the need to endure.
Austen makes some biting comments about ‘family’ and those we choose to associate with. Mary wants to nurse Louisa but doesn’t want to nurse her son. Elizabeth prefers the low-born Mrs. Clay to her sister, yet courts the attentions of Lady Dalrymple who is ‘amongst the nobility of England and Ireland’.
Persuasion is widely appreciated as a moving love story despite what has been labeled as a simple plot, and exemplifies Austen’s acclaimed wit and ironic narrative style. Austen wrote Persuasion in a hurry, during the onset of the illness from which she eventually died; as a result, the novel is both shorter and arguably less polished than Mansfield Park and Emma, and was not subject to the usual pattern of careful retrospective revision.
Although the impact of Austen’s failing health at the time of writing this novel cannot be overlooked, the novel is strikingly original in several ways. Persuasion is the first of Austen’s novels to feature as the central character a woman who, by the standards of the time, is well past the first bloom of youth; biographer Claire Tomalin characterizes 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.”
Persuasion has been the subject of several adaptations, but the one I watched was the 1995 Persuasion, made-for-television film, starring Amanda Root as Anne and Ciarán Hinds as Captain Wentworth. It was released in US theaters by Sony Pictures Classics.
She did not live to see its publication, which occurred in the year following her death. Persuasion and Northanger Abbey were published together by Miss Austen’s brother, Henry Austen, who had long been a champion of his sister’s work. It was he who chose the title for this novel, and unfortunately, we can never know what Jane herself might have named it.
While she had published anonymously during her lifetime, Henry was always eager to let everyone know of the talents of his beloved sister. In publishing these last two of her novels, Henry wished the world to know the identity of the author of Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, Mansfield Park, and Emma. He therefore wrote an introduction to the novels, telling of her authorship, her life, and her too-early death. The “Biographical Notice of the Author” is a touching memorial to the love of a brother for his sister and shows the respect and regard that he held for her.
Early in 1816, Jane Austen began to feel unwell. She ignored her illness at first and continued to work and to participate in the usual round of family activities. By the middle of that year, her decline was unmistakable to Austen and to her family, and Austen’s physical condition began a long, slow, and irregular deterioration culminating in her death the following year. The majority of Austen biographers rely on Dr. Vincent Cope’s tentative 1964 retrospective diagnosis and list her cause of death as Addison’s disease. However, her final illness has also been described as Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Recent work by Katherine White of Britain’s Addison’s Disease Self Help Group suggests that Austen probably died of bovine tuberculosis, a disease (now) commonly associated with drinking unpasteurized milk. One contributing factor or cause of her death, discovered by Linda Robinson Walker and described in the Winter 2010 issue of Persuasions on-line, might be Brill–Zinsser disease, a recurrent form of typhus, which she had as a child. Brill–Zinsser disease is to typhus as shingles is to chicken pox; when a victim of typhus endures stress, malnutrition or another infection, typhus can recur as Brill–Zinsser disease
Austen made light of her condition to others, describing it as “Bile” and rheumatism, but as her disease progressed she experienced increasing difficulty walking or finding the energy for other activities. By mid-April, Austen was confined to her bed. In May, Jane and Cassandra’s brother Henry escorted the two of them to Winchester for medical treatment. Austen died in Winchester on 18 July 1817, at the age of 41. Henry, through his clerical connections, arranged for his sister to be buried in the north aisle of the nave of Winchester Cathedral.