Persuasion by Jane Austen: Thoughts

It seems strange to review a book a couple of hundred years old, moreover by a literary icon whose books have given rise to movie adaptations galore, as well as zombie and vampire spinoffs.

So rather than a review, let’s just say that I want to share some thoughts. Persuasion was Austen’s last book, written during the months of an illness that resulted in her death. The exact diagnoses isn’t known, there are various theories based on what little is known of her symptoms. So this novel had two strikes against it, ill-health and lacking the re-working and polishing of her earlier novels.

Interestingly, though, it provides the only existing manuscript. She re-wrote the climactic chapter and I found the original online, but can’t right now! (I’ll post if I do.)

As an aside, a couple of interesting historical tidbits from the novel: naval success and speed of travel. Travel by horse and carriage was 3 miles an hour. I can understand, in that context, how revolutionary trains were, increasing speed by 10x. It’s comparable to today’s fastest passenger jets relative to car travel.

War was profitable. Captured merchant vessels (probably American, who were supplying the French in the Napoleonic wars) were sold along with contents and the spoils divided among the crew, 1/4 going to the captain and smaller and smaller proportions down the line. Fortunes were made this way, the equivalent of millions of dollars today.

Back to the novel. The heroine, Anne Eliot, unlike Elizabeth Bennett and so on, isn’t a teenager but an adult (albeit young) woman in her late 20’s. She is compliant out of a sense of duty, insightful, intelligent, observant, competent, aware of her feelings which run strong though seldom expressed, and aware of how to manage her feelings.

Like other Austen novels, there is a silly selfish parent and a silly selfish sibling, as well as a selfish sibling who’s a hypochondriac. Love is thwarted through bad advice but comes out well in the end. Unlike the other novels, the heroine doesn’t overlook her true love and focus her affections on an unworthy though seemingly attractive other.

There is a character like that, who charms everyone but the heroine and turns out to be the no-good cad that is prominent in other novels. However the main thrust of the narrative isn’t affected one way or the other by that, and that is a weakness in the story.

I wasn’t grabbed by the heroine right off the bat, just as in the novel many around her aren’t, but after a bit I came to really like her quiet intelligence and zipped through the story waiting for true love and fortitude to win the day, which, it being an Austen novel, even the last one, does of course.

A good deal of the story takes place in Bath, and I wondered if there was any autobiography in the choice of heroine. By the sound of it, from what I read, Austen was rather funnier and more caustic than Eliot. And though she suffered from the same kind of financial reverses as her characters, she had much better family support.

I also found it interesting that Austen worked on novels for quite some years before being published, and that she even had to pay to get the first novel back from a publisher who never did anything with it. So, folks, it seems there is hope for all of us yet.

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6 thoughts on “Persuasion by Jane Austen: Thoughts

  1. Austen’s success was very hard won, indeed. The publishing world was no kinder in those days than it is now, especially to women!

  2. I first read Persuasion at school for A Level GCE. At the time I wasn’t too impressed by it, but as time has passed it has grown on me and now I rank it as my second favourite Austen book after Pride and Prejudice. I haven’t read it for years and your post has spurred me to re-read it.

    According to Claire Tomalin’s biography of Jane Austen, she rewrote the two final chapters entirely, put her manuscript aside and did nothing about it for six months. Tomalin writes:

    ‘In one light it can be seen as a present to herself … to all women who had lost their chance in life and would never enjoy a second spring. But it is also a remarkable leap into a new mood and a new way of looking at England. … it points approvingly to a society in which merit can rise. There is a remarkable portrait of a distinctly new woman. Mrs Croft, tough, humorous, middle aged and clearer headed than her husband the Admiral; and right in her judgements where the defenders of old-fashioned values of prudence, rank and family appear to be wrong.’

  3. I read this last year for the first time. Like you I found the opening a little disengaging, and it took me a while to get into it. But then I did and truly loved it. There is nothing giddy about romance in Austen’s best love stories; the comforts of love are hard won, and the sufferings restrained no matter how deep they run. She is the opposite of hysteria and I love her for that – such a tricky one to pull off in a world where women were still gagged so much of the time.

  4. Becca how true–but at least legally women now are persons! In Canada Nellie McClung and her comrades had to go to the privy council in England to get that declared in 1929. They went above the Supreme Court which in its wisdom had decided in 1928 that persons didn’t include female persons. So much for the universal “man”.

    Margaret that’s such a good point. I was interested in the way Austen was moving further from rank etc as being the starting and ending point.

    Litlove, yes, and that reminds me of your post about the comfort of love in your review of Widows. Austen’s heroes are less heart-throbbing than the movie representations. Their actions prove their worth by their helpfulness and consistency.

  5. Persuasion will be my next Austen re-read when I get around to it. I love this book, but it is quieter and more serious than some of her others. I like that, though — something about the more muted tone works for me.

    1. Yes it works for me too. It took a bit longer to get into it, but once there I was much taken by it.

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