Last Updated on November 21, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5444
Jane Austen’s novels—her “bits of ivory,” as she modestly and perhaps half-playfully termed them—are unrivaled for their success in combining two sorts of excellence that all too seldom coexist. Meticulously conscious of her artistry (as, for example, is Henry James), Austen is also unremittingly attentive to the realities of ordinary human existence (as is, among others, Anthony Trollope). From the first, her works unite subtlety and common sense, good humor and acute moral judgment, charm and conciseness, deftly marshaled incident and carefully rounded character.
Austen’s detractors have spoken of her as a “limited” novelist, one who, writing in an age of great men and important events, portrays small towns and petty concerns, who knows (or reveals) nothing of masculine occupations and ideas, and who reduces the range of feminine thought and deed to matrimonial scheming and social pleasantry. Though one merit of the first-rate novelist is the way his or her talent transmutes all it touches and thereby creates a distinctive and consistent world, it is true that the settings, characters, events, and ideas of Austen’s novels are more than usually homogeneous. Her tales, like her own life, are set in country villages and at rural seats from which the denizens venture forth to watering places or to London. True, her characters tend to be members of her own order, that prosperous and courteous segment of the middle class called the gentry. Unlike her novel-writing peers, Austen introduces few aristocrats into the pages of her novels, and the lower ranks, though glimpsed from time to time, are never brought forward. The happenings of her novels would not have been newsworthy in her day. She depicts society at leisure rather than on the march, and in portraying pleasures her literary preference is modest: Architectural improvement involves the remodeling of a parsonage rather than the construction of Carlton House Terrace and Regent’s Park; a ball is a gathering of country neighbors dancing to a harpsichord, not a crush at Almack’s or the duchess of Richmond’s glittering fete on the eve of Waterloo.
These limitations are the self-drawn boundaries of a strong mind rather than the innate restrictions of a weak or parochial one. Austen was in a position to know a broad band of social classes, from the local lord of the manor to the retired laborer subsisting on the charity of the parish. Some aspects of life that she did not herself experience she could learn about firsthand without leaving the family circle. Her brothers could tell her of the university, the navy in the age of Horatio Nelson, or the world of finance and fashion in Regency London. Her cousin (and later sister-in-law) Eliza, who had lost her first husband, the comte de Feuillide, to the guillotine, could tell her of Paris during the last days of the Old Regime.
In focusing on the manners and morals of rural middle-class English life, particularly on the ordering dance of matrimony that gives shape to society and situation to young ladies, Austen emphasizes rather than evades reality. The microcosm she depicts is convincing because she understands, though seldom explicitly assesses, its connections to the larger order. Her characters have clear social positions but are not just social types; the genius of such comic creations as Mrs. Bennet, Mr. Woodhouse, and Miss Bates is that each is a sparkling refinement on a quality or set of qualities existing at all times and on all levels. A proof of Austen’s power (no one questions her polish) is that she succeeds in making whole communities live in the reader’s imagination with little recourse to the...
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stock device of the mere novelist of manners: descriptive detail. If a sparely drawn likeness is to convince, every line must count. The artist must understand what is omitted as well as what is supplied.
The six novels that constitute the Austencanon did not evolve in a straightforward way. Austen was, memoirs relate, as mistrustful of her judgment as she was rapid in her composition. In the case of Pride and Prejudice, for example, readers can be grateful that when the Reverend George Austen’s letter offering the book’s first incarnation, titled “First Impressions” (1797), to a publisher met with a negative reply, she was content to put the book aside for more than a decade. Sense and Sensibility was likewise a revision of a much earlier work. If Austen was notably nonchalant about the process of getting her literary progeny into print, one publisher with whom she had dealings was yet more dilatory. In 1803, Austen had completed Northanger Abbey (then titled “Susan”) and, through her brother Henry’s agency, had sold it to Crosby and Sons for ten pounds. Having acquired the manuscript, the publisher did not think fit to make use of it, and in December, 1816, Henry Austen repurchased the novel. He made known the author’s identity, so family tradition has it, only after closing the deal. For these various reasons, the chronology of Austen’s novels can be set in different ways; here they are discussed in order of their dates of publication.
Sense and Sensibility
Sense and Sensibility, Austen’s first published novel, evolved from “Elinor and Marianne,” an epistolary work completed between 1795 and 1797. The novel is generally considered her weakest, largely because, as Walton Litz convincingly argues, it strives but fails to resolve “that struggle between inherited form and fresh experience which so often marks the transitional works of a great artist.” The “inherited form” of which Litz speaks is the eighteenth century antithetical pattern suggested in the novel’s title. According to this formula, opposing qualities of temperament or mind are presented in characters (generally female, often sisters) who, despite their great differences, are sincerely attached to one another.
In Sense and Sensibility, the antithetical characters are Elinor and Marianne Dashwood, the respective embodiments of cool, collected sense and prodigal, exquisite sensibility. In the company of their mother and younger sister, these lovely young ladies have, on the death of their father and the succession to his estate of their half brother, retired in very modest circumstances to a small house in Devonshire. There the imprudent Marianne meets and melts for Willoughby, a fashionable gentleman as charming as he is unscrupulous. Having engaged the rash girl’s affections, Willoughby proceeds to trifle with them by bolting for London. When chance once again brings the Dashwood sisters into Willoughby’s circle, his manner toward Marianne is greatly altered. On hearing of his engagement to an heiress, the representative of sensibility swoons, weeps, and exhibits her grief to the utmost.
Meanwhile, the reasonable Elinor has been equally unlucky in love, though she bears her disappointment quite differently. Before the family’s move to Devonshire, Elinor had met and come to cherish fond feelings for her sister-in-law’s brother, Edward Ferrars, a rather tame fellow (at least in comparison with Willoughby) who returns her regard—but with a measure of unease. It soon becomes known that Ferrars’s reluctance to press his suit with Elinor stems from an early and injudicious secret engagement he had contracted with shrewd, base Lucy Steele. Elinor high-mindedly conceals her knowledge of the engagement and her feelings on the matter. Mrs. Ferrars, however, is a lady of less impressive self-control; she furiously disinherits her elder son in favor of his younger brother, whom Lucy then proceeds to ensnare. Thus Edward, free and provided with a small church living that will suffice to support a sensible sort of wife, can marry Elinor. Marianne—perhaps because she has finally exhausted her fancies and discovered her latent reason, perhaps because her creator is determined to punish the sensibility that throughout the novel has been so much more attractive than Elinor’s prudence—is also provided with a husband: the rich Colonel Brandon, who has long loved her but whom, on account of his flannel waistcoats and his advanced age of five-and-thirty, she has heretofore reckoned beyond the pale.
The great flaw of Sense and Sensibility is that the polarities presented in the persons of Elinor and Marianne are too genuinely antithetical to be plausible or dynamic portraits of human beings. Elinor has strong feelings, securely managed though they may be, and Marianne has some rational powers to supplement her overactive imagination and emotions, but the young ladies do not often show themselves to be more than mere embodiments of sense and sensibility. In her second published novel, Pride and Prejudice, Austen makes defter use of two sisters whose values are the same but whose minds and hearts function differently. This book, a complete revision of “First Impressions,” the youthful effort that had, in 1797, been offered to and summarily rejected by the publisher Cadell, is, as numerous critics have observed, a paragon of “classic” literature in which the conventions and traditions of the eighteenth century novel come to full flowering yet are freshened and transformed by Austen’s distinctive genius.
Pride and Prejudice
The title Pride and Prejudice, with its balanced alliterative abstractions, might suggest a second experiment in schematic psychology, and indeed the book does show some resemblances to Sense and Sensibility. Here again the reader encounters a pair of sisters, the elder (Jane Bennet) serene, the younger (Elizabeth) volatile. Unlike the Dashwoods, however, these ladies both demonstrate deep feelings and perceptive minds. The qualities alluded to in the title refer not to a contrast between sisters but to double defects shared by Elizabeth and Fitzwilliam Darcy, a wealthy and well-born young man she meets when his easygoing friend Charles Bingley leases Netherfield, the estate next to the Bennets’ Longbourn. If so rich and vital a comic masterpiece could be reduced to a formula, it might be appropriate to say that the main thread of Pride and Prejudice involves the twin correction of these faults. As Darcy learns to moderate his tradition-based view of society and to recognize individual excellence (such as Elizabeth’s, Jane’s, and their Aunt and Uncle Gardiner’s) in ranks below his own, Elizabeth becomes less dogmatic in her judgments and, in particular, more aware of the real merits of Darcy, whom she initially dismisses as a haughty, unfeeling aristocrat.
The growing accord of Elizabeth and Darcy is one of the most perfectly satisfying courtships in English literature. Their persons, minds, tastes, and even phrases convince the reader that they are two people truly made for each other; their union confers fitness on the world around them. Lionel Trilling has observed that, because of this principal match, Pride and Prejudice “permits us to conceive of morality as style.” Elizabeth and Darcy’s slow-growing love may be Pride and Prejudice’s ideal alliance, but it is far from being the only one, and a host of finely drawn characters surround the heroine and hero. In Jane Bennet and Charles Bingley, whose early mutual attraction is temporarily suspended by Darcy and the Bingley sisters (who deplore, not without some cause, the vulgarity of the amiable Jane’s family), Austen presents a less sparkling but eminently pleasing and well-matched pair.
William Collins, the half-pompous, half-obsequious, totally asinine cousin who, because of an entail, will inherit Longbourn and displace the Bennet females after Mr. Bennet’s demise, aspires to marry Elizabeth but, when rejected, instead gains the hand of her plain and practical friend Charlotte Lucas. Aware of her suitor’s absurdities, Charlotte is nevertheless alive to the advantages of the situation he can offer. Her calculated decision to marry gives a graver ring to the irony of the novel’s famous opening sentence: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”
The last of the matches made in Pride and Prejudice is yet more precariously based. A lively, charming, and amoral young officer, George Wickham, son of the former steward of Pemberley, Darcy’s estate, and source of many of Elizabeth’s prejudices against that scrupulous gentleman, first fascinates Elizabeth and then elopes with her youngest sister, the mindless, frivolous Lydia. Only through Darcy’s personal and financial intervention is Wickham persuaded to marry the ill-bred girl, who never properly understands her disgrace—a folly she shares with her mother. Mrs. Bennet, a woman deficient in good humor and good sense, is—along with her cynical, capricious husband, the ponderous Collins, and the tyrannical Lady Catherine De Bourgh—one of the great comic creations of literature. Most of these characters could have seemed odious if sketched by another pen, but so brilliant is the sunny intelligence playing over the world of Pride and Prejudice that even fools are golden.
Mansfield Park, begun in 1811 and finished in 1813, is the first of Austen’s novels to be a complete product of her maturity. The longest, most didactic, and least ironic of her books, it is the one critics generally have the most trouble reconciling with their prevailing ideas of the author. Although Mansfield Park was composed more or less at one stretch, its conception coincided with the final revisions of Pride and Prejudice. Indeed, the critics who offer the most satisfying studies of Mansfield Park tend to see it not as a piece of authorial bad faith or self-suppression, a temporary anomaly, but as what Walton Litz calls a “counter-truth” to its immediate predecessor.
Pleased with and proud of Pride and Prejudice, Austen nevertheless recorded her impression of its being “rather too light, and bright, and sparkling”—in need of shade. That darkness she found wanting is supplied in Mansfield Park, which offers, as Trilling observes in his well-known essay on the novel, the antithesis to Pride and Prejudice’s generous, humorous, spirited social vision. Mansfield Park, Trilling argues, condemns rather than forgives: “Its praise is not for social freedom but for social stasis. It takes full notice of spiritedness, vivacity, celerity, and lightness, only to reject them as having nothing to do with virtue and happiness, as being, indeed, deterrents to the good life.”
Most of the action of Mansfield Park is set within the little world comprising the estate of that name, a country place resembling in large measure Godmersham, Edward Austen Knight’s estate in Kent; but for her heroine and some interludes in which she figures, Austen dips into a milieu she has not previously frequented in her novels—the socially and financially precarious lower fringe of the middle class. Fanny Price, a frail, serious, modest girl, is one of nine children belonging to and inadequately supported by a feckless officer of marines and his lazy, self-centered wife. Mrs. Price’s meddling sister, the widowed Mrs. Norris, arranges for Fanny to be reared in “poor relation” status at Mansfield Park, the seat of kindly but crusty Sir Thomas Bertram and his languid lady, the third of the sisters. At first awed by the splendor of her surroundings, the gruffness of the baronet, and the elegance, vigor, and high spirits of the young Bertrams—Tom, Edmund, Maria, and Julia—Fanny eventually wins a valued place in the household.
During Sir Thomas’s absence to visit his property in Antigua, evidence of Fanny’s moral fineness, and the various degrees in which her cousins fall short of her excellence, is presented through a device that proves to be one of Austen’s most brilliant triumphs of plotting. Visiting the rectory at Mansfield are the younger brother and sister of the rector’s wife, Henry and Mary Crawford, witty, worldly, and wealthy. At Mary’s proposal, amateur theatricals are introduced to Mansfield Park, and in the process of this diversion the moral pollution of London’s Great World begins to corrupt the bracing country air.
Just how the staging of a play—even though it be Lovers’ Vows, a sloppy piece of romantic bathos, adultery rendered sympathetic—can be morally reprehensible is a bit unclear for most modern-day readers, especially those who realize that the Austens themselves reveled in theatricals at home. The problem as Austen presents it lies in the possible consequences of role-playing: coming to feel the emotions and attitudes one presents on the stage or, worse yet, expressing rather than suppressing genuine but socially unacceptable feelings in the guise of mere acting. In the course of the theatricals, where Fanny, who will not act, is relegated to the role of spectator and moral chorus, Maria Bertram, engaged to a bovine local heir, vies with her sister in striving to fascinate Henry Crawford, who in turn is all too ready to charm them. Mary Crawford, though it is “her way” to find eldest sons most agreeable, has the good taste to be attracted to Edmund, the second son, who plans to enter the clergy. Mary’s vivacity, as evidenced by the theatricals, easily wins his heart.
Time passes and poor Fanny, who since childhood has adored her cousin Edmund, unintentionally interests Henry Crawford. Determined to gain the affections of this rare young woman who is indifferent to his charms, Crawford ends by succumbing to hers. He proposes. Fanny’s unworldly refusal provokes the anger of her uncle. Then, while Fanny, still in disgrace with the baronet, is away from Mansfield Park and visiting her family at Portsmouth, the debacle of which Lovers’ Vows was a harbinger comes about. The homme fatal Henry, at a loss for a woman to make love to, trains his charms on his old flirt Maria, now Mrs. Rushworth. She runs away with him; her sister, not to be outdone in bad behavior, elopes with an unsatisfactory suitor. Mary Crawford’s moral coarseness becomes evident in her casual dismissal of these catastrophes. Edmund, now a clergyman, finds solace, then love, with the cousin whose sterling character shines brightly for him now that Mary’s glitter has tarnished. Fanny gains all she could hope for in at last attaining the heart and hand of her clerical kinsman.
Austen’s next novel, Emma, might be thought of as harmonizing the two voices heard in Pride and Prejudice and Mansfield Park. For this book, Austen claimed to be creating “a heroine whom no one but myself will much like,” an “imaginist” whose circumstances and qualities of mind make her the self-crowned queen of her country neighborhood. Austen was not entirely serious or accurate: Emma certainly has her partisans. Even those readers who do not like her tend to find her fascinating, for she is a spirited, imaginative, healthy young woman who, like Mary Crawford, has potential to do considerable harm to the fabric of society but on whom, like Elizabeth Bennet, her creator generously bestows life’s greatest blessing: union with a man whose virtues, talents, and assets are the best complement for her own.
Emma’s eventual marriage to Mr. Knightley of Donwell Abbey is the ultimate expression of one of Austen’s key assumptions, that marriage is a young woman’s supreme act of self-definition. Unlike any other Austen heroine, Emma has no pressing need to marry. As the opening sentence of the book implies, Emma’s situation makes her acceptance or rejection of a suitor an act of unencumbered will: “Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition, seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence; and had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her.”
Free though circumstance allows her to be, Emma has not been encouraged by her lot in life to acquire the discipline and self-knowledge that, augmenting her innate intelligence and taste, would help her to choose wisely. Brought up by a doting valetudinarian of a father and a perceptive but permissive governess, Emma has been encouraged to think too highly of herself. Far from vain about her beauty, Emma has—as Mr. Knightley, the only person who ventures to criticize her, observes—complete yet unfounded faith in her ability to judge people’s characters and arrange their lives. The course of Emma is Miss Woodhouse’s education in judgment, a process achieved through repeated mistakes and humiliations.
As the novel opens, the young mistress of Hartfield is at loose ends. Her beloved governess has just married Mr. Weston, of the neighboring property, Randalls. To fill the newly made gap in her life, Emma takes notice of Harriet Smith, a pretty, dim “natural daughter of somebody,” and a parlor-boarder at the local school. Determined to settle her protégé into the sort of life she deems suitable, Emma detaches Harriet from Robert Martin, a young farmer who has proposed to her, and embarks on a campaign to conquer for Harriet the heart of Mr. Elton, Highbury’s unmarried clergyman. Elton’s attentiveness and excessive flattery convince Emma of her plan’s success but at the same time show the reader what Emma is aghast to learn at the end of book 1: that Elton scorns the nobody and has designs on the heiress herself.
With the arrival of three new personages in Highbury, book 2 widens Emma’s opportunities for misconception. The first newcomer is Jane Fairfax, an elegant and accomplished connection of the Bates family and a girl whose prospective fate, the “governess trade,” shows how unreliable the situations of well-bred young ladies without fortunes or husbands tend to be. Next to arrive is the suave Mr. Frank Churchill, Mr. Weston’s grown son, who has been adopted by wealthy relations of his mother and who has been long remiss in paying a visit to Highbury. Finally, Mr. Elton brings home a bride, the former Augusta Hawkins of Bristol, a pretentious and impertinent creature possessed of an independent fortune, a well-married sister, and a boundless fund of self-congratulation. Emma mistakenly flatters herself that the dashing Frank Churchill is in love with her and then settles on him as a husband for Harriet; she suspects the reserved Miss Fairfax, whose cultivation she rightly perceives as a reproach to her own untrained talents, of a clandestine relationship with a married man. She despises Mrs. Elton, as would any person of sense, but fails to see that the vulgar woman’s offensiveness is an exaggerated version of her own officiousness and snobbery.
Thus the potential consequences of Emma’s misplaced faith in her judgment intensify, and the evidence of her fallibility mounts. Thoroughly embarrassed to learn that Frank Churchill, with whom she has shared all her hypotheses regarding Jane Fairfax, has long been secretly engaged to that woman, Emma suffers the deathblow to her smug self-esteem when Harriet announces that the gentleman whose feelings she hopes to have aroused is not, as Emma supposes, Churchill but the squire of Donwell. Emma’s moment of truth is devastating and complete, its importance marked by one of Jane Austen’s rare uses of figurative language: “It darted through her, with the speed of an arrow, that Mr. Knightley must marry no one but herself!” Perhaps the greatest evidence of Emma’s being a favorite of fortune is that Mr. Knightley feels the same as she does on this matter. Chastened by her series of bad judgments, paired with a gentleman who for years has loved and respected her enough to correct her and whom she can love and respect in return, Emma participates in the minuet of marriage with which Austen concludes the book, the other couples so united being Miss Fairfax and Mr. Churchill and Harriet Smith (ductile enough to form four attachments in a year) and Robert Martin (stalwart enough to persist in his original feeling).
Emma Woodhouse’s gradual education, which parallels the reader’s growing awareness of what a menace to the social order her circumstances, abilities, and weaknesses combine to make her, is one of Austen’s finest pieces of plotting. The depiction of character is likewise superb. Among a gallery of memorable and distinctive characters are Mr. Woodhouse; Miss Bates, the stream-of-consciousness talker who inadvertently provokes Emma’s famous rudeness on Box Hill; and the wonderfully detestable Mrs. Elton, with her self-contradictions and her fractured Italian, her endless allusions to Selina, Mr. Suckling, Maple Grove, and the barouche landau. Life at Hartfield, Donwell, and Highbury is portrayed with complexity and economy. Every word, expression, opinion, and activity—whether sketching a portrait, selecting a dancing partner, or planning a strawberry-picking party—becomes a gesture of self-revelation. Emma demonstrates how, in Austen’s hands, the novel of manners can become a statement of moral philosophy.
Northanger Abbey was published in a four-volume unit with Persuasion in 1818, after Austen’s death, but the manuscript had been completed much earlier, in 1803. Austen wrote a preface for Northanger Abbey but did not do the sort of revising that had transformed “Elinor and Marianne” and “First Impressions” into Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice. The published form of Northanger Abbey can therefore be seen as the earliest of the six novels. It is also, with the possible exception of Sense and Sensibility, the most “literary.” Northanger Abbey, like some of Austen’s juvenile burlesques, confronts the conventions of thegothic novel or tale of terror. The incidents of her novel have been shown to parallel, with ironic difference, the principal lines of gothic romance, particularly as practiced by Ann Radcliffe, whose most famous works, The Romance of the Forest (1791) and The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794), had appeared several years before Austen began work on her burlesque.
Like Emma, Northanger Abbey is centrally concerned with tracing the growth of a young woman’s mind and the cultivation of her judgment. In this less sophisticated work, however, the author accomplishes her goal through a rather schematic contrast. As an enthusiastic reader of tales of terror, Catherine Morland has gothic expectations of life despite a background most unsuitable for a heroine. Like the gothic heroines she admires, Catherine commences adventuring early in the novel. She is not, however, shipped to Venice or Dalmatia; rather, she is taken to Bath for a six-week stay. Her hosts are serenely amiable English folk, her pastimes the ordinary round of spa pleasures; the young man whose acquaintance she makes, Henry Tilney, is a witty clergyman rather than a misanthropic monk or dissolute rake. Toward this delightful, if far from gothic, young man, Catherine’s feelings are early inclined. In turn, he, his sister, and even his father, the haughty, imperious General Tilney, are favorably disposed toward her. With the highest expectations, Catherine sets out to accompany them to their seat, the Abbey of the novel’s title (which, like that of Persuasion, was selected not by the author but by Henry Austen, who handled the posthumous publication).
At Northanger, Catherine’s education in the difference between literature and life continues. Despite its monastic origins, the Abbey proves a comfortable and well-maintained dwelling. When Catherine, like one of Radcliffe’sprotagonists, finds a mysterious document in a chest and spends a restless night wondering what lurid tale it might chronicle, she is again disappointed: “If the evidence of her sight might be trusted she held a washing-bill in her hand.” Although Catherine’s experience does not confirm the truth of Radcliffe’s sensational horrors, it does not prove the world a straightforward, safe, cozy place. Catherine has already seen something of falseness and selfish vulgarity in the persons of Isabella Thorpe and her brother John, acquaintances formed at Bath. At Northanger, she learns that, though the general may not be the wife murderer she has fancied him, he is quite as cruel as she could imagine. On learning that Catherine is not the great heiress he has mistakenly supposed her to be, the furious general packs her off in disgrace and discomfort in a public coach.
With this proof that the world of fact can be as treacherous as that of fiction, Catherine returns, sadder and wiser, to the bosom of her family. She has not long to droop, however, for Henry Tilney, on hearing of his father’s bad behavior, hurries after her and makes Catherine the proposal that he has long felt inclined to offer and that his father has until recently promoted. The approval of Catherine’s parents is immediate, and the general is not overlong in coming to countenance the match. “To begin perfect happiness at the respective ages of twenty-six and eighteen is to do pretty well,” observes the facetious narrator, striking a literary pose even in the novel’s last sentence, “andI leave it to be settled by whomsoever it may concern, whether the tendency of this work be altogether to recommend parental tyranny, or reward filial disobedience.”
Persuasion, many readers believe, signals Austen’s literary move out of the eighteenth century and into the nineteenth. This novel, quite different from those that preceded it, draws not on the tradition of the novelists of the 1790’s but on that of the lionized poets of the new century’s second decade, Sir Walter Scott and Lord Byron. For the first time, Austen clearly seems the child of her time, susceptible to the charms of natural rather than improved landscapes, fields, and sea cliffs rather than gardens and shrubberies. The wistful, melancholy beauty of autumn that pervades the book is likewise romantic. The gaiety, vitality, and sparkling wit of Pride and Prejudice and Emma are muted. The stable social order represented by the great estate in Mansfield Park has become fluid in Persuasion: Here the principal country house, Kellynch Hall, must be let because the indigenous family cannot afford to inhabit it.
Most important, Persuasion’s heroine is unique in Jane Austen’s gallery. Anne Elliott, uprooted from her ancestral home, spiritually isolated from her selfish and small-minded father and sisters, separated from the man she loves by a long-standing estrangement, is every bit as “alienated” as such later nineteenth century heroines as Esther Summerson, Jane Eyre, and Becky Sharp. Anne’s story is very much the product of Austen’s middle age. At twenty-seven, Anne is the only Austen heroine to be past her first youth. Furthermore, she is in no need of education. Her one great mistake—overriding the impulse of her heart and yielding to the persuasion of her friend Lady Russell in rejecting the proposal of Frederick Wentworth, a sanguine young naval officer with his fortune still to make and his character to prove—is some eight years in the past, and she clearly recognizes it for the error it was.
Persuasion is the story of how Anne and Frederick (now the eminent Captain) Wentworth rekindle the embers of their love. Chance throws them together when the vain, foolish Sir Walter Elliott, obliged to economize or rent his estate, resolves to move his household to Bath, where he can cut a fine figure at less cost, and leases Kellynch to Admiral and Mrs. Croft, who turn out to be the brother-in-law and sister of Captain Wentworth. Initially cool to his former love—or, rather, able to see the diminution of her beauty because he is unable to forgive her rejection—the captain flirts with the Musgrove girls; they are sisters to the husband of Anne’s younger sister Mary and blooming belles with the youth and vigor Anne lacks. The captain’s old appreciation of Anne’s merits—her clear insight, kindness, high-mindedness, and modesty—soon reasserts itself, but not before fate and the captain’s impetuosity have all but forced another engagement on him. Being “jumped down” from the Cobb at Lyme Regis, Louisa Musgrove misses his arms and falls unconscious on the pavement. Obliged by honor to declare himself hers if she should wish it, Wentworth is finally spared this self-sacrifice when the susceptible young lady and the sensitive Captain Benwick fall in love. Having discovered the intensity of his devotion to Anne by being on the point of having to abjure it, Wentworth hurries to Bath, there to declare his attachment in what is surely the most powerful engagement scene in the Austen canon.
Though the story of Persuasion belongs to Anne Elliott and Frederick Wentworth, Austen’s skill at evoking characters is everywhere noticeable. As Elizabeth Jenkins observes, all of the supporting characters present different facets of the love theme. The heartless marital calculations of Mr. Elliott, Elizabeth Elliott, and Mrs. Clay, the domestic comforts of the senior Musgroves and the Crofts, and the half-fractious, half-amiable ménage of Charles and Mary Musgrove all permit the reader to discern more clearly how rare and true is the love Anne Elliott and her captain have come so close to losing. The mature, deeply grateful commitment they are able to make to each other is, if not the most charming, surely the most profound in the Austen world.