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? 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." 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.
- 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.
*****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.