Form and Content (Masterplots II: Women's Literature Series)
Like most of her novels, Persuasion affords Jane Austen an opportunity to explore social relationships among middle-class men and women living in what is usually considered a refined, country environment away from the commercial and political centers of England. Unlike other Austen novels, however, Persuasion features a heroine who is not a young ingenue first learning the customs and taboos of polite society. Anne Elliot, second daughter of a minor country baronet, is nearing thirty when the action of the novel begins. Readers learn early that she was once engaged to Frederick Wentworth but gave up her lover when friends and relatives convinced her that he was not worthy of her. The action of the novel concentrates on her becoming reacquainted with Wentworth, now a naval captain, and overcoming the objections of others and the connivances of rivals for Wentworth’s affection.
Austen centers the action in various locales: Kellynch Hall, the ancestral home of the Elliots; the country village of Uppercross; and the resort city of Bath. Rising debts cause Anne’s father to rent out Kellynch Hall and move to less expensive lodgings in Bath; Anne visits relatives in Uppercross, where she first learns that Wentworth has returned to the region after rising to distinction and amassing a comfortable fortune through service in the Navy. In a series of connected episodes, Anne and her circle of family and friends travel freely in a series of...
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Context (Masterplots II: Women's Literature Series)
Unlike many women novelists before the twentieth century, Jane Austen has always enjoyed a good reputation among writers (both men and women), and from the initial publication of her work in the first decades of the nineteenth century she has been considered a standard toward which aspiring novelists—especially women novelists—were to reach. Although most male novelists and critics writing prior to the 1960’s have been somewhat patronizing toward Austen because she focuses her attention on domestic and social issues, women writers have long looked to her as one of the earliest feminist novelists. Her heroines usually emerge above the conventional roles expected of women in Austen’s day, although the author’s critique of gender relationships remains a muted strain in works that seem conservative to casual readers. Her work was known and respected by the Brontes and by George Eliot; she is the subject of commentary by the earliest critics now associated with the twentieth century women’s movement, including Virginia Woolf.
Because it was her final novel and was published in what most critics consider an unfinished state, Persuasion has not enjoyed the reputation and influence accorded to other works in the Austen canon, especially Emma and Pride and Prejudice. Nevertheless, in the later decades of the twentieth century, the novel has received increasing attention from critics, especially those interested in women’s...
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Places Discussed (Cyclopedia of Literary Places)
Kellynch. Elliot family estate in southwestern England’s Somersetshire, where the novel opens, with the spendthrift baronet Sir Walter Elliot reading the “Elliot of Kellynch-Hall” entry in a list of baronets. Jane Austen rarely describes buildings in any physical detail and devotes scarcely a single word to Kellynch Hall itself. The house can, however, be imagined to be a fairly impressive structure, probably a manor house dating back to the seventeenth century, as the Elliots are an “ancient and respectable family.”)
During Austen’s lifetime, the country gentry—prosperous landowners living on estates similar to Kellynch and serving as local landlords and civil magistrates—constituted the backbone of English society. However, Sir Walter, selfish, shallow, hopelessly vain, and near financial ruin, is forced by his circumstances to rent out Kellynch Hall and move to less expensive quarters in Bath. In so doing, he forsakes his social responsibilities as manor lord, leaves his tenants to fend for themselves, and makes of Kellynch Hall and its “deserted grounds” a kind of socially purposeless derelict that his daughter Anne can only think of in pain.
Uppercross. Musgrove family estate, located three miles from Kellynch Hall. It includes both the Great House that is the home of the elder Musgroves and their daughters, Henrietta and Louisa, and Uppercross Cottage, the home...
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The sentimental novel was a popular form of fiction in England at the end of the eighteenth century. This type of fiction focuses on the problems encountered by virtuous men and women as they strive to lead exemplary lives. By the end of the novel, characters who displayed a sense of honor and behaved in a moral fashion were able to solve their problems and regain a sense of order in their world. The didactic plot promoted accepted standards of morality, encouraging readers to believe that such behavior would be justly rewarded in time. Characters in these novels did not check their emotions, which suggested their benevolence and compassion. The most well-known example of this genre is Samuel Richardson's Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded, published in 1740, which chronicled the life of the title character, a servant girl who survived continuous assaults on her honor. Other novels in this genre include Goldsmith's The Vicar of Wakefield (1776), Mackenzie's The Man of Feeling (1771), and Edgeworth's Castle Rackrent (1800). Austen broke from this form in her novels, which concentrate on realistic depictions of the tensions between her heroines and their society.
A Woman's Place
During the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, women were confined to the classes into which they were born, unless their fathers or husbands moved up or down in the social hierarchy. The strict rules for...
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Austen helped create the domestic comedy of middle-class manners, a genre that is concerned with family situations and problems. This type of novel focuses on the manners and conventions of the British middle class—in Austen's work, specifically the landed gentry. The plot is structured around problems that arise within the family concerning the particular fashions and outlook of this structured social group. The point of view is often satirical, as it illuminates and critiques the idiosyncrasies of its members. Although the plot can offer clever solutions to the family's conflicts, it is less important than the characterizations and the dialogue. In Persuasion, Austen's plot revolves around the conflicts within her family and their desire to keep those they deem undesirable out. Though some characters, such as Lady Russell and Mrs. Clay, are decidedly flat, most of the Elliot family is carefully drawn to reflect the realities of upper-middle-class life in England at the beginning of the nineteenth century. As the plot evolves, Austen critiques the snobbery and arrogance of the landed gentry in her depiction of Sir Walter. All conflicts are worked out by the end of the novel, signaled by Anne's happy marriage to Wentworth.
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Compare and Contrast
Late 1700s: Vindication of the Rights of Woman by Mary Wollstonecraft is published in 1792. The book chronicles the growing sense of dissatisfaction women feel about the unequal treatment they receive in the home and in other institutions.
Today: American women have made major gains in their fight for equality with the passage of many pieces of legislation. Although some notable pieces of legislation, including the 1972 Equal Rights Amendment bill, have not been passed, discrimination against women is now against the law.
Late 1700s: One of the most popular forms of literature during this period is the sentimental novel—a didactic work that promotes and rewards its characters' "proper" moral behavior.
Today: The most popular forms of literature for the general reading public are thrillers and memoirs.
Late 1700s: The American War of Independence is waged from 1775 to 1783. As a result, British domination of America comes to an end.
Today: Catholics in Northern Ireland, backed by the Irish Republican Army (IRA), continue their struggle to break free from English rule.
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Topics for Further Study
Observe and listen to a conversation that involves several people. Write a short sketch of the conversation, focusing on the perspective of one of the people involved. Describe not only what is said but also what you imagine the person is thinking during the conversation.
Read Austen's Pride and Prejudice, written during her first phase, and compare the central character, Elizabeth Bennet, to Anne Elliot. What similarities and differences do you discover?
Research the psychological foundations of the act of persuasion. In what ways could Anne have prevented her father's and Lady Russell's influence over her?
Investigate the lives of the middle-class British at the beginning of the nineteenth century. Discuss how strictly social lines were drawn during that period.
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Persuasion was adapted as a film by Roger Michell, starring Amanda Root and Ciaran Hinds, Columbia/Tristar Studios, 1995; available from Columbia Home Video.
The novel was also adapted in an earlier film version by Howard Baker, starring Anne Firbank and Bryan Marshall, BBC Video, 1971.
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What Do I Read Next?
Austen's Sense and Sensibility, published in 1811, chronicles the lives of Elinor and Marianne Dashwood as they learn to find a balance between the extremes of the two qualities noted in the title.
Pride and Prejudice, published in 1813 and considered to be Austen's best novel, presents an intimate portrait of Elizabeth Bennet and her struggles with family, social, and romantic problems.
Emma, published in 1816, focuses on one of Austen's most endearing and complex characters as she tries to influence the lives of those in her circle.
Robert B. Cialdini's Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, published in 1993, presents the science of persuasion as it helps readers understand the psychological foundations of this technique.
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Drabble, Margaret, "Introduction" in Persuasion, by Jane Austen, Signet, 1989, pp. v-xx.
Kelly, Gary, "Jane Austen," in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 116: British Romantic Novelists, 1789-1832, Gale Research, 1992, pp. 3-35.
Southam, Brian, "Jane Austen," in British Writers, Vol. 4, Scribner, 1981, pp. 101-24.
For Further Reading
Brown, Lloyd, W., Bits of Ivory: Narrative Techniques in Jane Austen's Fiction, Louisiana State University Press, 1973.
Brown presents a penetrating study of how Austen structures the realistic portraits of daily life in her novels.
Butler, Marilyn, Jane Austen and the War of Ideas, Clarendon Press, 1975.
This work explores Austen's dominant themes, including an analysis of class consciousness, a central theme in all of her novels.
Litz, A. Walton, Jane Austen: A Study of Her Artistic Development, Oxford University Press, 1965.
Walton places Persuasion in Austen's second phase and examines the structure and style of the novel.
Pinion, F. B., A Jane Austen Companion: A Critical Survey and Reference Book, Macmillan, 1973.
Pinion presents a comprehensive and useful introduction to the themes and structure of Austen's work.
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Bibliography (Cyclopedia of Literary Characters, Revised Third Edition)
Dwyer, June. Jane Austen. New York: Continuum, 1989. Dwyer offers readings of each of Austen’s major novels, including Persuasion, and in separate chapters discusses the writer’s life and her literary techniques and concerns.
Gard, Robert. Jane Austen’s Novels: The Art of Clarity. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1992. Gard writes what he calls a corrective to criticism that has moved readers too far away from the texts of Austen’s novels into theoretical concerns. His chapter on Persuasion discusses Austen’s mature ability as a novelist.
Johnson, Claudia. Jane Austen: Women, Politics, and the Novel. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1988. Johnson considers the political dimension of all Austen’s novels, showing how the writer integrates her own voice and views subtly within texts that seem conservative on casual reading.
Kirkham, Margaret. Jane Austen, Feminism, and Fiction. Totowa, N.J.: Barnes & Noble Books, 1983. Kirkham places Austen’s work within the feminist tradition, showing that the writer’s concerns are those of her feminist contemporaries. She includes a chapter on eighteenth century feminism. The chapter on Persuasion shows how Austen uses the novel as a feminist critique of society.
Paris, Bernard J....
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