Modern thoughts on 19th century literature written by women: Persuasion by Jane Austen
This is the fifth post of a series about books written by women to give me an excuse to read more female authors. Spoilers ahead!
Persuasion was published in 1818 after Jane Austen’s death. It focuses on the members of an English family, the Elliots, coming to terms with their financial situation. The family’s patriarch, Sir Walter Elliot, finally decides to rent their home, Kellynch Hall, to save their shrinking fortune. A widower with three daughters, he desperately clings to status and his role within society. He is obsessed with his baronetcy and is overly concerned about what others think, much like his eldest daughter, Elizabeth—beautiful but vain. Elliot’s youngest daughter, Mary, wavers between ecstatic and miserable, also concerned with societal hierarchy. But Anne, the middle daughter, is thoughtful, bright and balanced in her thinking, compared to her siblings. Her needs and thoughts are continuously overlooked, especially after her mother’s death when she was 14 years old. She is the story’s heroine, and the most relatable to me personally. Anne is 27 when the narrator starts telling the story, and goes through struggles about her role within society and within her own family. She continuously tries to determine and reevaluate her worth as a woman, human being, sister, daughter, future wife, and friend.
The first part of the story takes place in the gilded hallways of Kellynch Hall and the more modest Uppercross. The latter is a place of warmth for Anne, and even though she is often overlooked when she’s there, she feels needed. Uppercross is where Mary lives with her husband and his family, the Musgroves. They are not as wealthy or noble as the Elliots, but they are relatively happy. The homes become symbols of two very different ways of life: Kellynch, a nod to the past, with its routine, stiffness and etiquette; Uppercross, an example of the kindness, caring and chaos within the family, namely the Musgroves (made up of Mary’s husband’s parents and two sisters, Louisa and Henrietta. There was also a brother who died after serving in the war). They still cannot escape their relationship with class, though. They, too, like the Elliots, are concerned with status and appearance.
The second half of the story is partly set in Lyme—nature and beauty juxtaposed against scenes of despair and looming death—and later, in the sitting rooms of Camden-place and the hectic streets of Bath. I love how most of the places Austen writes about are real. The buildings at Camden-place in Bath, now called Camden Crescent, are still standing. The sparkling waterfront in Lyme, with beaches and boats, are still visited by many tourists. Each place becomes a character with its own kind of persuasion and power over people. Louisa, lulled by a sense of adventure and curiosity, is urged to jump at the Cobb. Anne, reminded of her duties by the walls of Kellynch, concludes to abandon her proposal for duty.
The book’s title made me think of the narrative from that perspective, before even reading it, but it’s important to note that Austen never chose this name. Although the theme of persuasion runs deep, guiding each character to their fate, I found the underlying themes to be more significant: the evolution of families and the stark differences (conscious and subconscious) between genders.
The issues women face throughout Persuasion are similar to problems being faced today. Not to downplay the men in the book (there is at least one good feminist in Admiral Croft, even though he probably wouldn’t define himself as such), but this story was focused on the Elliot women, namely Anne, so that was my focus in writing this. The first example that comes to mind of Anne being persuaded is when she ultimately decides to shun the man she intended to marry. Seven years before the book begins, when she was 20, her family and a close friend of her late mother’s, Lady Russell, urge her to reconsider the proposal because of the man’s low rank. Lady Russell, who cares for Anne as a daughter, has greater influence over her than her own father. Lady Russell’s negative reaction and warnings push Anne to end the relationship with Frederick Wentworth. When the book begins, Anne has been reeling from the decision for seven years, refusing to entertain other suitors. The decision comes back to haunt her when the family must rent their house to Admiral Croft, whose brother-in-law is a successful and respected captain: the same Wentworth who Anne once loved.
The feelings Sir Elliot and Lady Russell had about Anne marrying Wentworth are comparable to parents today. Although marrying for status is not a staple of our culture anymore, there is the pressure and expectation for children (especially women) to grow up and marry within their social circle or find a significant other who practices the same faith. When Meghan Markle was revealed as Prince Harry’s intended bride, British purists were fuming. Her status as a regular citizen and actress was not in keeping with royalty, they thought. That way of thinking is on par with Sir Elliot and Lady Russell, who believe marriage is to cement status, not for love. Austen’s perspective about marriage is modern compared to the characters in her book. The ending proves some progress can be made with Sir Elliot and Lady Russell’s approval of Wentworth—but even Anne says she does not regret turning him down for duty years before. She is unable to completely part with her thought process: she refused the marriage out of duty, therefore she did the right thing. She can only now accept Wentworth because his status has changed after his success in the Navy.
As well as exploring women’s issues, Persuasion is also a study of external influences and how they can determine our own fate. Austen shows influencing family and friends as part of human nature. Vulnerability seems to be at the root of almost every situation when a person is persuaded throughout the book; weakness and rock bottom are the catalysts for change. Anne looks to her mother figure, Lady Russell, to help her navigate her possible marriage, but is pushed to another outcome in her state of vulnerability. (I say vulnerable at this point because she lost her mother at 14, was sent away to school, and returned to a father more interested in himself, and sisters who were just as clueless. Her only comfort was Lady Russell, a former friend of her mother’s, who truly loves her.)
After suffering an injury in Lyme, Louisa ends up falling in love with a widower, Captain Benwick, who seems like her opposite with his love of literature. But her love for him grows only after she becomes vulnerable, suffering from the head injury and forced to recover indoors. Although not directly persuaded by Benwick, Louisa is left behind by her alleged suitor, Wentworth. In his absence, Benwick and Louisa allow time and comfort to persuade them. Her sister, Henrietta, is persuaded to accept a marriage request from Charles Hayter, despite her intrigue in Wentworth after his sudden appearance. Mrs. Smith’s husband is persuaded to spend his fortune. Mrs. Clay is persuaded to run away with the Elliot heir.
There is no escaping persuasion—a word mentioned in the book many times. But there seems to be a power imbalance when it comes to what the men are being persuaded of versus the women. When men are persuaded, they have less to lose and hardly any risk, like Charles Musgrove having to go to a dinner party instead of a performance. The outcome of the situation—Mary urging him to go to dinner rather than the show—has no bearing on his future. Another example: Sir Elliot is convinced by an advisor and Lady Russell to rent out his gigantic home to save money. He is being pushed into saving his fortune and dealing with his future realistically. Although he is coerced into it, his life remains relatively unchanged and he does not lose his freedom or will to decide what happens after. (And the change is for the better, despite his complaints.) The inconsequential decisions the men are persuaded into are mere hiccups in comparison to the life-changing ways the women are pushed to change.
When Anne is told not to marry Wentworth, it changes the course of her life. She becomes a caregiver and babysitter to her married sister, and an overlooked companion to the other, traded back and forth for their convenience. Her fate only changes when her and Captain Wentworth proclaim their everlasting love for each other. The decision to go ahead with the relationship is a struggle for Anne, but by the end of the book, she has progressed to the point of feeling like she deserves love, and has paid the price with her patience.
The one woman who seems to have control of her life and an equal marriage is Mrs. Croft. She is an exception to the rule of the archetypal housewife. She hates to part with her husband and prefers to accompany him on his sailing trips. Anne takes a liking to their loving and balanced relationship. The Crofts inspire Anne and help shift her perception of marriage, thinking of it as an alliance or a partnership. Mrs. Croft speaks her mind and is as knowledgable about sailing as the men. She is a believer in real equality, and her attitude certainly rubs off on Anne by the end.
Austen was very aware of the effects of persuasion, especially on her niece Fanny Knight. Austen struggled with having the responsibility of giving advice to Knight to help her decide whether to accept a marriage proposal. The weight of the decision is not lost on the author. In a letter dated 1815, around the time Austen was writing Persuasion, she discussed the possible engagement with thoughtfulness and caution.
Austen goes back and forth on her opinions for and against marriage. She highlights how crucial it is to marry someone who can support her, as well as someone she loves. Austen illustrates how terrible it is to pick a husband purely for status and warns against that as well. “Nothing can be compared to the misery of being bound without love, bound to one and preferring another,” she wrote to Knight. She later warns, “You must not let anything depend on my opinion.” Unlike Lady Russell, Austen is weary of her position as persuader and critical of her own role in such a personal and permanent decision, like Knight’s marriage.