My Year with Jane Austen: “Persuasion” Part I

Book: “Persuasion” by Jane Austen

Publication Year: 1818

Book Description: Twenty-seven-year old Anne Elliot is Austen’s most adult heroine. Eight years before the story proper begins, she is happily betrothed to a naval officer, Frederick Wentworth, but she precipitously breaks off the engagement when persuaded by her friend Lady Russell that such a match is unworthy. The breakup produces in Anne a deep and long-lasting regret. When later Wentworth returns from sea a rich and successful captain, he finds Anne’s family on the brink of financial ruin and his own sister a tenant in Kellynch Hall, the Elliot estate. All the tension of the novel revolves around one question: Will Anne and Wentworth be reunited in their love?

History – “I read it a little as duty, but it tells me nothing that does not either vex or weary me.”

“Persuasion” was the last novel Jane Austen completed before her death only a few short months later. At the time of its completion, it didn’t appear as if Austen had any immediate plans for publication. The book had already went through one re-write where she added two additional chapters to the end of the story. She could have been considering further edits to the entire work before moving forward with publication.

After her death, the copyright for her published works was transferred to her sister and her brother. Her brother worked to have both “Persuasion” and “Northanger Abbey” published after her death. Notably, the set of books also included a biography of the author written by Austen’s brother which first identified Jane Austen by name. Looking at many of the initial reviews of both “Northanger Abbey” and “Persuasion,” it is clear that reviewers were just as focused on the revelation of the author of these books as in the books themselves. Both books garnered praise and some critiques, but many reviews spent much of their time writing glowing praise of Austen herself as an author would remain popular in the future. They were right. (source)

“You may perhaps like the Heroine, as she is almost too good for me.”

Part I – Chapters 1 – 14

Story – “The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid.

Anne Elliot is the middle daughter of Sir Walter Elliot. Having lost his practical and more sensible wife when Anne was a teenager, Sir Walter has gone on to slowly but surely run his family into unsustainable debt. He and his eldest daughter, vain and thinking much of themselves, are finally convinced to let their house to and Admiral Croft and re-locate to Bath. This news is significant to the 27-year-0ld Anne due to a past connection to the Admiral’s wife’s brother, Captain Wentworth.

When Anne was 19, she formed a mutually strong and loving relationship with Captain Wentworth. But at this point, Captain Wentworth’s prospects were questionable and he wouldn’t be able to marry immediately or, possibly, even in the near future. Given her youth, her family’s position, and Wentworth’s questionable prospects, Anne’s family and the family friend (Lady Russell) who had often served as a mother-figure to Anne, strongly opposed the union. Eventually, Anne was persuaded to believe that it was her duty to give up the engagement. Wentworth left, hurt and angry. Over the years, Anne followed his career through the papers and saw him garner all the success any of her family could have wanted, and more quickly than any of them could have imagined. She never heard from him, however. Now, at age 27, Anne’s prospects are low, and while she doesn’t blame her younger self for her decisions, she knows that now, if asked, she would give very different advice to a young person.

Sir Walter and Elizabeth move to Bath (taking with them a companion for Elizabeth, a widow named Mrs. Clay whom both Lady Russell and Anne suspect of having designs on Sir Walter). But Anne, who dislikes Bath, is called to stay with her younger sister, Mary, who lives nearby. Mary is a silly woman who often believes herself to be ill in an attempt to gain attention. However, she’s happy to have Anne’s company. Mary’s husband’s parents and their two daughters, Louisa and Henrietta Musgrove, live a short walk away and often come to visit Anne and Mary. Soon enough, the news travels that the Crofts have moved in and Mrs. Croft’s brother, Captain Wentworth is expected shortly. Anne is able to avoid a first meeting by staying home to care for Mary’s injured son, but she soon hears more than enough: everyone is enchanted by Captain Wentworth, particularly Louisa and Henrietta.

Eventually the two are forced to meet again. It is clear to Anne that Captain Wentworth has not forgiven her and is cold and distant. His attention is all for the two Musgrove girls, and everyone spends much time debating which of the two he prefers. Anne finds all of these meetings and discussions very painful, as she sees the same man she fell in love with all those years ago. The debate between the two girls comes to a head with the return of a cousin who had previously made much headway with securing Henrietta’s affection.

One day, a large party forms to make their way to the house of this cousin. It consists of Anne, Mary and her husband, the two Musgrove girls, and Captain Wentworth. The walk is long and tiring, so when they get to the cousin’s house, Anne is happy to stay behind with part of the group as Henrietta and her brother go on to visit. While sitting quietly, she is able to hear Captain Wentworth and Louisa talking nearby. Louisa is sharing a history of her family, that originally Mary’s husband had wanted to marry Anne, but Anne had refused him, presumably due to Lady Russell’s persuasion. Captain Wentworth is surprised, but he expresses high praise of Louisa’s insistence that her character is much more firm and she should never be persuaded out of doing what she liked. Anne is greatly hurt by this discussion, seeing it the way Captain Wentworth must: that Anne is of weak character and that Louisa is a highly desirable woman who has the very trait he has just expressed such praise of.

On the way back, Anne becomes increasingly tired. When they run across the Crofts who are out on a buggy ride, Captain Wentworth makes an effort to ensure that Anne has a ride home. Anne sees that while he can never forgive her, he also can’t forget their history and let her suffer. She is gratified, but even more sad at her loss of such a good man.

The group then decides to make a mini trip to Lyme, a coastal town where Captain Wentworth has a few friends from the Navy. Once there, they are all delighted with the town, even if it is the fall and the off-season. They meet up with Captain Wentworth’s friends, which includes a man named James Benwick who is staying with a Captain Harville as he mourns the loss of his fiance, Captain Harville’s sister. Anne goes out of her way to talk to Benwick. They both enjoy reading, though Anne suspects that Benwick’s love of morose poetry is not helping him boulster his spirits. While out on a walk by the ocean, they pass by another gentleman who is quite obviously struck by Anne’s beauty. Captain Wentworth takes notices, and Anne wonders if perhaps she’ll have a second bloom of beauty later in life.

The next morning, on her way to breakfast, Anne runs into the same gentleman at the inn. Later, the party sees him driving off and asks about him. It turns out to be William Elliott, the nephew of Sir Walter who will be the heir of the estate. He had a falling out with Sir Walter years before after marrying a lower-class lady for her money and cutting off contact with the Elliots, including Elizabeth whom Sir Walter had hoped would marry Mr. Elliot.

Before they leave, they group takes one last walk down to the beach. They must descend a steep set of stairs to reach the beach, and Louisa insists on being jumped down by Captain Wentworth. After one go, she runs back up even higher and insists on jumping again. Captain Wentworth protests that it is too high but she won’t listen and jumps. She falls and hits her head hard on the ground, knocking her out. The entire party goes into hysterics, except for Anne who quickly instructs someone to fetch a doctor and that they should carry Louisa to the the nearby house of the Harvilles. Once there, she continues her steady nursing abilities.

She overhears Captain Wentworth and Mr. Musgrove making plans. Captain Wentworth suggests that Anne stay behind as she is clearly the most capable nurse that Louisa could hope for. When hearing this plan, however, Mary falls into fits insisting that she means more to Louisa than Anne so she should be the one to stay. Anne relents in the face of this fit and Captain Wentworth looks on in dismay. He, Anne, and Henrietta return home to inform Louisa’s parents of what has happened since it is likely that Louisa will need to remain in Lyme for some time to recover. Anne does what she can to help, but eventually must make her way to Bath to meet up again with her father and older sister.

Heroines – “I hate to hear you talk about all women as if they were fine ladies instead of rational creatures.”

As Jane Austen herself stated in the quote I shared above, Anne Elliot is almost too good of a character. She’s practically perfect in every way. Sure, she’s persuaded into giving up her love at age 19, but as this first half goes out of its way to establish, this is due to an excess of familial loyalty and a sense of obligation to put others before herself. But unlike Fanny, one of Austen’s other seemingly “perfect” heroines, Anne is not sunk under this sense of obligation and duty. She’s still confident enough to put herself forward when she sees that she can help, watching over her injured nephew when Mary wants to go to the family dinner at the Musgroves, and, more importantly, taking charge of the Louisa situation when all turns to havoc. But soon after, we see her again step back in the face of Mary’s hissy fit about staying on at Lyme instead of Anne. It’s more like true humility than some of Fanny’s more weak-willed withering under the criticism of Mrs. Norris and such.

Anne is also a keen observer. She accurately sees those around her, for their strengths and their weaknesses. She can properly judge the good spirits of the Musgrove sisters while also understanding the limits of their true characters as being somewhat shallow. She notes the dangers of Mrs. Clay when her sister, Elizabeth, is blinded. And she sees Wentworth’s struggles with regards to herself, his lingering anger but inability to completely shun her. All of this good judgement is also recognized by those around her, and she finds herself in the uncomfortable position of being everyone’s confidant but with very little ability to do much about any of the complaints she hears.

The Anne we see here, of course, is the older, more adult version of the character who made the important decisions in the past that lead to the current circumstances. She’s also the oldest heroine we’ve seen in any of the books, so her strong sense of self is pretty in line with that. But what we see here also makes it easy to understand the character of the 19-year-old version of Anne, a young woman who would have the same sense of duty and humility but with a less strong sense of her own self and trust in her own judgement. It’s mentioned, further, that the teenage Anne believed that she was ultimately helping Wentworth by freeing him from an engagement that might have bound him for an unknown length of time.

Heroes – “What are men to rocks and mountains?”

Captain Wentworth is an interesting hero. His anger and hurt over Anne’s actions are all very understandable. And his similar wish to avoid much contact with her rings true to, I would guess, many of our own experiences with exes. Austen provides us with a few brief insights into his mentality that highlight how her actions were particularly painful for him, being the exact opposite of the strong, confident way he himself approached decisions. I would say that he doesn’t make appropriate allowances for gender, in that as a man, he was always much more capable of carrying forward his own plans without much reference to others. Anne, on the other hand, being a young woman of 19, had very few real options She is/was beholden to her family in a way that he would never be, and had the engagement went forward, she would be the one remaining home with constant disapproval surrounding her.

We do see much evidence of why Anne was initially attracted to him. While we don’t get a lot of dialogue, we hear a lot about how charmed everyone is by him. He’s also considerate of Anne when it matters, making sure she has a ride home when she’s tired, etc. We can also make some judgements based on what we know of his friends and family. The Crofts are generally described as a very good set of people. And Captain Wentworth’s two Navy friends are also of estimable character. We hear stories from each that reinforce the good of Captain Wentworth, notably that Wentworth takes it upon himself to deliver the awful news of Benwick’s fiancé’s death to him and stays by his side as he mourns.

Villains – “I do not want people to be very agreeable, as it saves me the trouble of liking them a great deal.” 

There really aren’t any outright villains in this first half. Much can be said against Sir Walter, both for his general personality and for his poor financial decisions that lead to the family being evicted from their family home. On top of that, he and Lady Russell are both behind Anne’s current unhappy situation. But while these aren’t factors in either of their favors, it doesn’t really make them villains either. It’s clear that Anne still has a very close relationship with Lady Russell and doesn’t even really blame her for the advice she gave Anne when she was 19.

Elizabeth and Mary are definitely not great sisters, but neither is really a villain either. Elizabeth is cut from the same cloth as her father and is vain and dismissive of Anne. Mary values Anne more, but in more in the sense of Anne’s being a captive audience to her endless complaints of illness than anything else.

Romance – “A lady’s imagination is very rapid: it jumps from admiration to love, from love to matrimony in a moment.”

There’s very little romance in this first half, other than much reflection on the past whirlwind romance between Anne and Wentworth when they were young. Austen’s strength as a writer is on clear display as she’s able to paint a lovely image of this happy couple of the past, even though we never see it for ourselves. She then contrasts that with the sad state of their relationship now. Anne refers to it as a “perpetual estrangement,” which is all the more painful for there once never being “two hearts so open.” It’s beautifully tragic.

We do see the beginnings of change coming though. Captain Wentworth’s reaction to the news that Anne turned down another proposal in the years since he left can raise a few flags as to his thoughts. We also see the steps that he takes to care for Anne when others forget her and the high value he puts on her judgement during the situation with Louisa. And, of course, the marked look he gives Anne when he notices Mr. Elliot staring at her. We later learn that this small moment is one of the real eye-openers Captain Wentworth needed to view how risky his current behavior was to his future happiness.

Comedy – “For what do we live, but to make sport for our neighbors, and laugh at them in our turn?”

Mary is probably the funniest character we have here, but often its funny in the infuriating sense. I think many of us know a Mary-like character, which is always the way with Austen’s best comedic characters: they reflect nonsense traits that we see often ourselves in those around us. Mary’s constant complaints about illness to gather attention. Her easy offense at Anne’s getting any sort of attention, even if it’s of the sort that would just result in more work, like nursing Louisa.

Really, it’s hard to come up with much other comedy in this first half. “Persuasion” is a fairly serious, solemn book with more reflection than anything else. Most of the characters are of a serious nature and many of the weaknesses of the lesser characters are of the sort that aren’t necessarily funny and more just kind of sad. The Musgrove girls are described as charming, but it seems that they more have high spirits than any truly great sense of humor.

Probably one of the funniest moments in the entire first half comes from a very brief description of Anne’s ride back home in the buggy with the Crofts. She notes how casually Mrs. Croft reaches over and re-directs the buggy to safety as the Admiral drives so casually they almost hit ditches and fences. Anne reflects that this likely illustrates the nature of their relationship as a hole. As we’re lead to believe that the Crofts are both very good people and truly attached, it’s a funny little insight into the different ways couples manage their lives and relationship together.

Favorite quotes – “What did she say? Just what she ought, of course. A lady always does.”

This quote is from Mary in reference to her husband going to the dinner party and leaving her and Anne behind with injured boy. But, given that she then promptly leave Anne to shift alone, I think we can only take it with a grain of salt. Though it’s still pretty funny and tempting to pull out now and then:

“If there is any thing disagreeable going on, men are always sure to get out of it.”

This is just a nice quote, I think:

“She had been forced into prudence in her youth, she learned romance as she grew older: the natural sequel of an unnatural beginning.”

In two weeks, I’ll review the last half of “Persuasion” and share my final thoughts on the book as a whole.

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