It is surely the most convincing love story Austen ever wrote, and it’s about a young love, eager, passionate and joyful, which is thwarted by adult ignorance, ill faith and snobbery. Anne loves Wentworth, and Wentworth loves Anne. So it makes pretty good sense that, when the novel opens, eight years later, he has been smarting from Anne’s reluctant rejection of him, and hurt pride has so far stopped him from proposing again. Anne has meanwhile suffered helplessly in silence, alone, ignored, disrespected – seemingly a dutiful maiden aunt but inwardly a dubious one, full of disgust for the society and the individuals that urged her to relinquish him. This is an autumnal novel, full of melancholy. Anne and Wentworth have contemplated this disaster for years, and are stuck in grief and anger.
This situation has been harder for Anne to bear, since she’s had little to distract her from the ruination of her hopes, her looks, her love life, and her prospects. She has remained in the very spot where their love affair was forcibly dismantled, and lives with the same unsympathetic people and, wistfully, amid the same (beloved) scenery. She has naturally spent a lot of her time reading poetry and naval reports (in search of news of Captain Wentworth on his various frigates). But she bears another significant wound too: her mother died when Anne was thirteen. So Anne is really alone in the world, lost, frozen, lovestruck – and inadequately loved or protected by the people around her. The deterioration in her looks is a dangerous development for a young privileged woman in the early 1800s: it seems to doom her to spinsterhood and playing the piano while others dance. Even Wentworth, on his return, dances to music Anne provides. Her lowly position in the family circle, and her initial suffering on Wentworth’s return, are exquisitely painful: ‘His cold politeness, his ceremonious grace, were worse than anything.’
On a walk with the lively group of cousins, Wentworth’s new groupies, Anne recites poetry to herself, but after overhearing Wentworth flirting with Louisa, loses even that comfort: ‘Anne could not immediately fall into a quotation again. The sweet scenes of autumn were for a while put by–unless some tender sonnet, fraught with the apt analogy of the declining year, with declining happiness, and the images of youth and hope, and spring, all gone together, blessed her memory. She roused herself to say…“Is not this one of the ways to Winthrop?” But nobody heard, or at least, nobody answered her.’ A low point – and incidentally, she was right about its being the way to Winthrop!
This is what it feels like not to be heard. She can’t or doesn’t bother to participate in most conversations, apart from offering a thoroughly sensible remark or two now and then. She’s never given a chance to speak. Her sister Mary is always yammering on, but everyone else too talks over Anne. No one listens to her at Kellynch Hall either, her supposed ‘home’, an insult that bugs Lady Russell on Anne’s behalf: Lady Russell recognizes that Anne is the most sensible person in the family. She may even have some regrets about blighting Anne’s life by encouraging her to reject Wentworth all those years ago. But Lady Russell is often out of the picture, so Anne doesn’t get to speak to her either.
What keeps happening is that in her powerless position – metaphysically gagged and bound – Anne overhears things. In reaction to all the indifference around her, she becomes more ears than mouth. Much of the novel turns on hearsay, second and third-hand gossip, and eavesdropping (Anne even reads someone else’s mail at one point, though she at first objects to the necessity of doing so). This is the story of a woman so alone it’s an achievement that she continues to exist at all. She lives in a society equally fragile, held together by strands of gossip and misrepresentation. Hearsay and gossip are powerful, if flawed, means of coercion, or ‘persuasion’. It’s also how the powerless communicate (look at Twitter). And the most hurtful, ill-judged remarks are the most quickly (and callously) shared. For instance, Mary blithely relays to Anne Wentworth’s shocked reaction to the change in her appearance: “…he said, ‘You were so altered he should not have known you again.’”
The harmfulness of ‘persuasion’ is at the heart of the book. Anne’s advisor and mother-substitute Lady Russell was WRONG WRONG WRONG. Yet, eight years on, Anne ‘did not blame Lady Russell, she did not blame herself for having been guided by her; but she felt that were any young person, in similar circumstances, to apply to her for counsel, they would never receive any of such certain immediate wretchedness, such uncertain future good.’ What the book most lacks is a gratifying confrontation between the two of them on the subject: Anne should really get to tell Lady Russell a thing or two. But by the end, thanks to the intrusive subplot, she has too much to tell Lady Russell (about Mr Elliot’s deceitfulness, as well as her newly independent attitude towards Wentworth), and evades meeting her at all! This is a bit of a cop-out. As a result, the ending’s too peaceful, and too pat.
Like Anne, Persuasion itself suffers from muteness. The wit here is abashed and awkward. What happened? Austen’s eye’s not always on the ball. A few memorable caricatures emerge (too few). The charmless father, Sir Walter, is nicely reprehensible, complaining at every opportunity about how ugly everybody is, especially anyone who’s been at sea (an apt analogy for Anne herself, who has been ‘at sea’ – in her own head – for eight years). He’s like someone lacking in zinc, for whom everything smells like shit. In response to the news that his tenant is an Admiral, he exclaims with customary revulsion: “Then I take it for granted…that his face is as orange as the cuffs and capes of my livery.” His older daughter Elizabeth is just as cold, but characterless; Austen never does much with her. The truly obnoxious Sir Walter at least earns his keep. Some sprightly fun is poked at him again in Bath, when he notices that the Dowager Viscountess Dalrymple has arrived: ‘…for the Dalrymples were cousins of the Elliots; and the agony was, how to introduce themselves properly.’ That ‘agony’ is genius.
It’s funny too that ‘…the Musgroves had had the ill fortune of a very troublesome, hopeless son; and the good fortune to lose him before he reached his twentieth year.’ But the joke is over-played in succeeding pages, releasing a brutality Austen usually saved for letters. She’s needlessly cruel too about Mrs. Musgrove’s plumpness, suggesting that it’s ridiculous to grieve over anything if you’re fat: you’re supposed to be jolly. She could surely have had more fun with Bath instead (a place Austen often energetically scorned). Anne merely dreads going, but has to go, and (suddenly) goes. And there, Cinderella-like, she changes character, becomes more able, more beautiful, more esteemed and less ignored, and more of a free agent too, finally being rewarded by an ecstatic resumption of love. Anne talks more in Bath than she has in the rest of the novel. The chance for Austen to knock the place is completely lost.
Even allowing for the lack of genuine satire, Persuasion is flawed. A very poignant story is marred by almost gothic convolutions of plot that heave themselves unnaturally into being in the last third of the book: all that stuff about the sinister Mr Elliot’s sneaky plans, awkwardly conveyed to us (through hearsay) by the never fully realised semi-invalid, Mrs. Smith. Unusually for Austen, this clumsy subplot verges on the tedious. What she had up until then was a nice tight little novel about loneliness, ostracism, enforced female immobility, and despair. She loses that intensity in favour of a Herculean (and unnecessary) struggle to sort out the good from the bad. But what’s it to US if Mr. Elliot’s a jerk?
Though much interrupted by all this Mrs. Smith malarkey, the delights of Anne’s contact with Wentworth in Bath are well done, those tentative thrilling moves towards reunion and happiness. Anne’s excitement at the concert is almost hysterical; she’s throbbing with hopes and fears. The climax of the Wentworth/Anne romance though, comes, oddly enough, with a conversation between Anne and Captain Harville (with Wentworth eavesdropping in the background). Harville movingly complains that Captain Benwick, in proposing to Louisa, has recovered surprisingly fast from the death of his previous fiancee, Harville’s sister Fanny: “Poor Fanny! she should not have forgotten him so soon!… It was not in her nature. She doated on him.” “It would not be the nature of any woman who truly loved,” replies Anne.
Then in a great little discussion along feminist lines, Harville comments mildly, “… 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 were all written by men.” “…Yes, yes, if you please, no reference to examples in books. Men have had every advantage of us in telling their own story. … I will not allow books to prove anything.” (Excellent irony, since the world by then contained Austen’s own novels.) The whole Louisa-Lyme Regis-Benwick-Fanny subplot then finally comes together in the once abject, now vibrant, Anne’s best line: “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.”
The unevenness of this novel is in some ways part of its charm. There is an artlessness and honesty here that hint at real pain, and perhaps at something too personal to be easily fictionalised. All the great Austen ingredients are there: she’s got her moral premise up and running (that young love should be allowed to flourish, and life is not only about money); she has a central female character who, though at first silent, meek and almost amorphous, becomes solidified by her own unhappiness and finds her voice; she has hypochondriacs, hypocrisies, absurdities (though not enough of them). That she didn’t manage to sculpt all this into quite the masterpiece Pride and Prejudice is (from the git-go, P & P means business), hints that much of the raw emotion here stayed raw – for Austen too – and became curiously (and intriguingly) intractable.