Critical Evaluation

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Completed a year before Jane Austen’s death but published posthumously in 1818, Persuasion is the novelist’s last long work. The novel completes her study of English country families begun in Sense and Sensibility (1811) and Pride and Prejudice (1813). The story begins with a description of Sir Walter Elliot of Kellynch Hall in Somersetshire, who, because he is egotistical, improvident, and idle, has managed to fritter away much of his patrimony. When his extravagance necessitates the letting of Kellynch Hall and the renting of a smaller house in Bath, his capable daughter, Anne Elliot, must make most of the provisions, while her father pouts like a spoiled child. Austen uses Sir Walter as well as his deceitful and scheming cousin and heir William Elliot to criticize the indolent, debilitated gentry of her era.

Like Austen’s earlier novels, Persuasion articulates and criticizes late eighteenth century English views of courtship and marriage. While in the novel marriage is clearly the greatest good achievable by a young woman, the path to this achievement is not a smooth one for Anne. She must defy her family to marry the man she loves. Austen shows the reader that she leaves very little behind when she does marry. Prior to marriage, Anne had cared for her selfish father and older sister, as well as aiding her hypochondriac younger sister and her children. Since Anne had no status in her family, becoming Mrs. Wentworth would in any case have been a distinct improvement.

Because Anne has previously rejected Captain Wentworth, the normal slow pace of courtship slows to a snail’s pace. As in all of Austen’s novels, much time is given over to reading and interpreting the sentiments of others. The reader is allowed greater knowledge of Anne’s views than of the views of Wentworth. The courtship proceeds to some extent by negation, for whereas initially Anne dreads seeing Captain Wentworth again, later she is convinced he loves Louisa rather than herself. Eighteenth century politeness leads to this false conclusion, since Wentworth must be gracious to all but effusive toward none, especially not toward Anne, who had previously rejected him.

Other courtship rituals in Persuasion are instructive as well. The Reverend Charles Haytor is initially thought unsuitable for Henrietta Musgrove because he is a simple curate, but once he secures a better living he becomes the perfect match. William Elliot renews his acquaintance with his cousin, Sir Walter, when he hears that the latter is courting Mrs. Clay; he is afraid Sir Walter will have a male heir, thus cutting him out of his inheritance. Money is at the root of these courtship considerations, not love. Even Captain Wentworth is more palatable to Sir Walter and Elizabeth and more defensible as a lover for Anne because he has risen in the world in the intervening eight years.

Austen employs several interesting new devices in Persuasion. Although she describes Sir Walter and a number of other characters, Anne’s appearance and demeanor are never described directly but allowed to be gleaned from the reactions of other characters. At the beginning of the novel, her whole family thinks she is drab, and even Wentworth opines that she has altered for the worse in eight years. As the book progresses, Anne comes to be considered more attractive by the other characters, and in the end both William Elliot and Wentworth judge her to be a beauty. Certainly Mrs. Musgrove and Lady Russell have commented on her excellent character throughout the story, but love and appreciation apparently cause Anne’s appearance to improve and blossom.

Austen achieves another interesting effect in the...

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denouement of the story when Wentworth writes a letter in the same room in which Anne is talking to Captain Harville about his dead sister Fanny, who was engaged to Captain Benwick, who has since then become engaged to Louisa Musgrove. Harville is not critical of Benwick but wonders why he was not eternally loyal to his dead sister. A conversation ensues between Anne and Harville about men and women and which gender is the most steadfast in love. Anne defends her gender, while Harville defends his. The conversation is just barely audible to Wentworth, and Anne is not speaking to be heard by him, yet the exchange could easily be between Anne and Wentworth. As Wentworth writes his letter pouring out his love for her, he hears her defending the constancy of women in love and can deduce from what she says that she will accept him. Several previous small instances of indirect discourse between Anne and Wentworth culminate in this final exchange that seals their love for each other.

As in all of her work, Austen in her final novel, Persuasion, continues to examine courtship, marriage, the family, and the gentry. She also continues her studies of the first impressions, last impressions, pride, prejudice, and persuasion that go into changing those central aspects of life.




Critical Overview