What makes Persuasion Unique?

In an article entitled "A Masterpiece of Delicate Strength" Elizabeth Bowen asserts: "Not till she [Austen] came to write Persuasion did she break with her self-set limitations. Did something in her demand release, expression, before it was too late?" One cannot help but wonder after reading the novel what direction her writing would have taken had she lived past the age of 42. Perhaps Persuasion gives us an inkling. We sense a shift, a change. In her famous essay, Virginia Woolf writes: Vivacious, irrepressible, gifted with an invention of great vitality, there can be no doubt that she would have written more, had she lived, and it is tempting to consider whether she would not have written differently. The boundaries were marked; moons, mountains, and castles lay on the other side. But was she not sometimes tempted to trespass for a minute? Was she not beginning, in her own gay and brilliant manner, to contemplate a little voyage of discovery? Amanda Root: Anne Elliot, Persuasion, 1995 Persuasion is a novel of personal relations and not an embodiment of a theme. It is contained within the consciousness of the heroine and society seems to matter less and to be there as a background.. Virginia Woolf expressed the uniqueness of Persuasion as almost an oxymoron: "There is a peculiar beauty and a peculiar dullness in Persuasion " she writes. My essay will attempt to show where the "peculiarity" of this novel lies. Virginia Woolf ascribes the "dullness" to the transition stage between two periods when the "writer is a little bored" by the vanities of a Sir Walter or the snobbery of Elizabeth Elliott. I think this impression may be due to the abandonment of dialogue as the sole means of conveying comedy. Persuasion has a fixed point of view and we see the ridicule of Sir Walter through Anne's eyes where it is tinged with the pain of embarrassment. Woolf writes "the satire is harsh, and the comedy crude.. Her [Austen's] mind is not altogether on her object." There is a new element in Persuasion [...] She is beginning to discover that the world is larger, more mysterious, and more romantic than she had supposed. We feel it to be true of herself when she says of Anne: "She had been forced into prudence in her youth, she learned romance as she grew older -- the natural sequel of an unnatural beginning." The Walk, Persuasion, 1995 Indeed there is a wistful, sad and suspiciously autobiographic mood in this novel. It is pervaded with a sad inner peace, the peace that comes with the end of hope. But beyond the tone, there are specific moments when we hardly recognize Austen's style: in the lyricism and sensitivity to nature of the following passage for example: Her pleasure in the walk must arise from the exercise and the day, from the view of the last smiles of the year upon the tawny leaves and withered hedges, and from repeating to herself some few of the thousand poetical descriptions extant of autumn, that season of peculiar and inexhaustible influence on the mind of taste and tenderness, that season which has drawn from every poet, worthy of being read, some attempt at description , or some lines of feeling. Or the following lines where Austen gets full into the romantic spirit by empathizing with nature and acknowledging the soothing claims of memory:  
    "The last few hours were certainly very painful," replied Anne: "but when pain is over, the remembrance of it often becomes a pleasure. One does not love a place the less for having suffered in it, unless it has been all suffering , nothing but suffering -- which was by no means the case at Lyme.
    Ciaran Hinds: Captain Wentworth, Persuasion, 1995 Another more crucial difference between Persuasion and four of the other novels has to do with the structural pattern. C.S. Lewis rightly remarks that this novel along with Mansfield Park does "not use the pattern of 'undeception'." Indeed there is no awakening for Anne. It is Wentworth who awakens. Anne acknowledges no mistake: She 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. At the end of Volume Two, again Anne declares that if there was a mistake, it was made by Lady Russell: I have been thinking over the past, and trying impartially to judge of the right and wrong, I mean with regard to myself; and must believe that I was right, much as I suffered from it, that I was perfectly right in being guided by the friend whom you will love better than you do now. To me, she was in the place of a parent. Do not mistake me, however. I am not saying that she did not err in her advice. It was, perhaps, one of those cases in which advice is good or bad only as the event decides; and for myself, I certainly never should, in any circumstance of tolerable similarity, give such advice. But I mean that I was right in submitting to her, and that if I had done otherwise, I should have suffered more in continuing the engagement than I did even in giving it up, because I should have suffered in my conscience. I have now, as far as such a sentiment is allowable in human nature, nothing to reproach myself with; and if I mistake not, a strong sense of duty is no bad part of a woman's portion. Anne, like Fanny Price, is blameless, but unlike Fanny she is never over-meek, subservient or mousey. She never pities herself. Another feature, which distinguishes Persuasion from the other four but is common with Mansfield Park is the solitude of the heroine. Anne of "no consequence" "was nobody with either father or sister: her word had no weight; her convenience was always to give way -- she was only Anne." She is exploited but not valued. She has no confidante even though we may suppose there have been confidences between her and Lady Russell in the past. And in her solitude she suffers. She is shut out and compelled to observe: for a lot of what she observes, she disapproves. She disapproves just as Fanny disapproves but we like Anne better because she does not have Fanny's insipidity. Her passion, her insight, her maturity, her fortitude all attract us. Passion is what Fanny lacks! And besides, Anne gains from having a lover much more attractive and interesting than Edmund Bertram. Mary Musgrove, Persuasion, 1995 We come now to the most important stylistic innovation: the expression of passion. We have come a long way since Marianne was chastised by her sister for imprudent displays of strong emotion. Many of the crucial scenes are experienced through the blur of dizziness which the proximity of Wentworth elicits. Here is the scene of his entrance which has been delayed in a delightful suspense:  
    • Mary, very much gratified by this attention, was delighted to receive him; while a thousand feelings rushed on Anne, of which this was the most consoling, that it would soon be over. And it was soon over. In two minutes after Charles's preparation, the others appeared; they were in the drawing-room. Her eye half met Captain Wentworth's; a bow, a curtsey passed; she heard his voice -- he talked to Mary; said all that was right; said something to the Miss Musgroves, enough to mark an easy footing; the room seemed full-- full of persons and voices-- but a few minutes ended it. Charles showed himself at the window, all was ready, their visitor had bowed and was gone; the Miss Musgroves were gone too, suddenly resolving to walk to the end of the village with the sportsmen; the room was cleared, and Anne might finish her breakfast as she could.
'It is over! it is over!' she repeated to herself again, and again in nervous gratitude. 'The worst is over!' Mary talked but she could not attend. She had seen him. They had met. They had been once more in the same room!   Marilyn Butler writes about the effect of high-wrought nervous tension: In Emma syntax is used to suggest heightened emotion, but there is nothing approaching the exclusively subjective viewpoint of Persuasion,. In the earlier novel dialogue is important , and even Emma's free indirect speech can incorporate the tones of another character's conversation. Here Anne is before us, and no one else. Her selective view of external 'reality,' her overwhelming emotional sense of a climax that is also anti-climax, is suggested by the novelist's distortion of the two 'normal' outward dimensions: time is recklessly speeded up, space grotesquely contracted. The implication, as so consistently in the presentation of Anne, is that the senses have a decisive advantage over reason and fact. 'Alas! With all her reasonings, she found, that to retentive feelings eight years may be little more than nothing.' Here it is timely to quote Jane Austen's rival realist Maria Edgeworth about the subtlety of the subjective writing in three scenes in particular: Don't you see Captain Wentworth, or rather don't you in her place feel him taking the boisterous child off her back as she kneels by the sick boy on the sofa? And is not the first meeting after their long separation admirably well done? And the overheard conversation about the nut? Persuasion, 1995The plot centers in Anne rather than in her and Wentworth jointly: in what she does, unknowingly until just before the end, merely by being herself, to draw Wentworth gradually back to her; and in what she undergoes meanwhile in her private thoughts since there is no one to whom she can speak of them. Silent she is as she moves from the state of "desolate tranquillity" in which we first see her, through painful agitation when she and Wentworth meet, more softened pain when she thinks he will surely marry Louisa but remembers his growing kindness to herself, then absorption in other interests when she rejoins her family in Bath, then sudden hope only half believed in when she hears of Louisa's engagement to Benwick, then full felicity when she convinces herself at the concert that Wentworth has "a heart returning to her at least", then worry when she discovers his jealousy of Mr. Elliott, to her final state when she enters her house after the reconciliation, "happier than anyone in that house could have conceived." The plot is bounded by these extremes of feeling in Anne and the overarching pattern for the reader's perception is pained suspense followed by gratification and release. Persuasion, 1995It is undoubtedly this new texture of Austen's prose which Virginia Woolf had in mind when she mused on what Austen would have written: But she would have known more. Her sense of security would have been shaken. Her comedy would have suffered. She would have trusted less (it is already perceptible in Persuasion) to dialogue and more to reflection to give us a knowledge of her characters. Those marvelous little speeches which sum up, in a few minutes' chatter, all that we need in order to know an Admiral Croft or a Mrs. Musgrove for ever, that short-hand, hit-or-miss method which contains chapters of analysis and psychology, would have become too crude to hold all that she now perceived of the complexity of human nature. She would have devised a method, clear and composed as ever, but deeper and more suggestive, of conveying, not only what people say, but what they leave unsaid; not only what they are but what life is. 


Françoise Coulont-Henderson teaches French language and literature in a small liberal arts university in the US. She has discovered Jane Austen late in life. Enjoyed this article? Visit our giftshop and escape into the world of Jane Austen.  

Leave a comment

All comments are moderated before being published