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 visits and excursions that give the young men and women ample opportunity to discuss important social issues and establish amorous attachments. Their conversations give readers a glimpse into the values held most sacred by the middle class of English society at the turn of the nineteenth century. It is clear that the young women spend most of their time plotting to snare an eligible bachelor; those who are married focus their attention on their families, taking time to assist in advancing the courtships of their unmarried associates. Although the young men pursue a variety of professions, they are as interested in social repartee as the women are. The novel is filled with parties, dinners, and trips to see local sights of interest.
Throughout the novel, Anne vacillates in her feelings about Wentworth, wondering whether she should renew her ardent love for him. She struggles to overcome the social prejudices that led her to reject Wentworth eight years earlier, all the while being concerned that others, especially her friend and confidante Lady Russell, might object to a reprise of a relationship of which they had been critical in the past. She is alternately persuaded to pursue him or to relinquish the idea that they might rekindle the affection they once felt for each other. Meanwhile, other women younger than Anne set their sights on Wentworth; Louisa Musgrove, sister to Anne’s brother-in-law, makes a particularly demonstrative play for his affections. A freak accident in which Louisa is seriously injured appears to drive Wentworth forward in his attentions toward her, and Anne can do nothing but be patient and let events take their natural course.
Because Austen tells the story almost exclusively from the point of view of her heroine, readers are led to wonder along with Anne whether Wentworth is serious in his attentions toward other women. Only when her cousin William Elliot appears as a suitor on the scene to seek Anne’s hand does Wentworth finally reveal that he is still smitten with her, at which point the two put aside their fears about what others might say and restore their engagement—this time as a prelude to marriage.
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...
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