For my fortieth birthday this year, I asked my parents to get me a beautifully bound collection of the complete works of Jane Austen. I’ve gradually been reading my way through it, interspersed with reading other books. I recently reread Persuasion, which was a delight as reading Jane Austen always is for me. So I thought I’d share a few thoughts about it.
To me, Persuasion is a very reflective novel. It differs from Austen’s previous novels in a number of ways. The heroine, Anne Elliot, is aged twenty-seven and is unmarried. In the Regency era, a woman of this age who was unmarried was considered to be almost at the point where she could never be married, pretty much ‘over the hill’ and verging on being a confirmed spinster. Think of Charlotte Lucas in Pride and Prejudice; the same age as Anne, she famously chooses marriage to Mr Collins over remaining a ‘spinster of the parish’ and a burden to her family.
It’s worth noting that all of Austen’s other heroines are significantly – by Regency era standards – younger than Anne and can look forward to meeting young gentlemen at balls and other social occasions, and hopefully being sought after by at least one of them. Anne, by contrast, at the beginning of the novel, is continually looking back to the events of eight years ago when she was a nineteen-year-old girl deeply in love with Captain Wentworth.
Persuasion differs in this way too from Austen’s other novels: the hero and heroine already know each other very well and have had a prior relationship. This affects the entire arc of the story. Anne very much regrets that she gave Wentworth up on the advice of her friend. Wentworth meanwhile is still hurt by what happened, to the point that when he meets Anne again towards the beginning of the novel, his manner towards her is cool and he makes a point of ignoring her as much as possible. Only he cannot do so forever and gradually he begins to thaw towards her, coming to realise over time that he still cares for her desperately.
It’s been said that Persuasion is Austen’s most romantic novel and I can see how this is true. Who can forget those lines that Wentworth writes to Anne at the of the novel: ‘You pierce my soul. I am half agony, half hope. Tell me that I am not too late, that such precious feelings are not gone forever…’ The love story in this novel is so beautiful in part because it’s about second chances, the opportunity for two people to start again. That doesn’t always happen in life.
Jane Austen gives her characters Anne Elliot and Captain Wentworth another shot at finding love together. During the eight years that they have been apart, they’ve had time to mature as people and to recognise the mistakes they made before. They learn from those mistakes and when they are finally reunited, they appreciate and love each other more fully and better than they did before. I think that’s what makes Persuasion such a wonderful book.