What ideas of Romanticism are displayed in Persuasion? 

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One way that Romantic ideals manifest themselves in Persuasion is in the undermining of the traditional importance of social rank. Romanticism was subversive of existing social structures in its privileging of the supposedly more "natural" subject over the artificialities of human society, with all its many contrived distinctions based on social rank and class. Romantic ideals challenged the widespread notion that an individual's value was largely derived from their place in the social pecking order. What really mattered, instead, was the contents of one's soul.

It's notable that, in Persuasion, social rank is divested of its traditional connotations of authority and responsibility, becoming instead little more than a commodity to be bought and sold. Observe how Mr. Elliot sees the baronetcy as an opportunity to serve not his own country but simply his own interests. He wants the trappings of social rank but not the onerous responsibilities that go with them.

Austen suggests a different way of valuing people than by their social rank. For example, Anne is decidedly unimpressed by Lady Dalrymple and her daughter, despite their impeccable social credentials. As they have nothing in terms of "manner, accomplishment, or understanding," Anne has no regard for them. In true Romantic fashion, she judges them as individuals, not by the artificial ranks that society has imposed upon them.

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Persuasion shows Romanticism through the way the love of the two protagonists, Anne and Wentworth, transcends time and convention: the two are separated for seven years after Anne refuses Wentworth's first marriage proposal, but their love remains steadfast throughout the separation. Anne rejects Wentworth at first because her aunt advises it would be imprudent to marry a many whose financial future is so uncertain. Anne, however, learns over time that it is better to put love ahead of financial caution, a Romantic notion.

The novel, however, also critiques Romantic excess. Captain Benwick, for example, mourns excessively over his dead bride. Anne finds this troubling and engages in long conversations with him. The two, who both love to read, refer to the Romantic poet Byron and to such poems of his as "The Giaour" and "The Bride of Abydos." Anne suggests to Benwick that too much immersion in such literature can have a negative effect on an already melancholic mind.

Nature imagery is abundant in Persuasion, and gaining solace from nature is very much a Romantic theme. At the seashore in Lyme, for instance, Austen alludes to "Kubla Khan," a sexually charged poem by the Romantic poet Coleridge, when she writes of a "deep romantic chasm" and "dancing rocks." Anne also finds solace in autumn landscapes and the beauty of the seashore.

While Austen reveals her reading of popular Romantic poets of her time, shows Anne's love of nature, and illustrates romantic love triumphing over prudence, she, as always, tempers this with realism and rationality about what it takes to live practically in this world. After all, the Wentworth Anne agrees to marry for love at the novel's end is a much richer man than he was when she turned down his first proposal.

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Persuasion is widely considered to be the most romantic of Jane Austen's works.   Austen may not have read some of the major romantic poems to inspire Persuasion, largely because they had not yet been published (like Keats' "To Autumn").  Even so, Persuasion's themes are decidedly romantic: "the self in relationship to the natural landscape, solitude and estrangement, the role of memory and feeling, recovery of the past" (Thomas 893).  

The characterization of Anne in the novel is decidedly romantic.  Anne's feelings of isolation in her father's home make her feel like a "nobody . . . her word had no weight; her convenience was always to give way; – she was only Anne” (5).   Austen's focus on emotional qualities of thoughts and feelings as leaving a physical impact is another romantic characteristic.  The characters in the novel fluctuated between extremes of emotion, whether it be "electrif[ying]" elation or being "sick with horror" (33, 75).  Anne often lets her emotions get the better of her.  Like many romantic heroines, there are times in Persuasion that she is simply overcome by her emotion.

 

Thomas, Keith.  "Jane Austen and the Romantic Lyric: Persuasion and Coleridge's Conversation Poems." ELH Winter 1987:  893-924.

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