A 19th-Century Analysis and Summary of Persuasion by Jane Austen
By Sarah Fanny Malden | On May 10, 2022 | Updated August 21, 2022 | Comments (3)
Jane Austen by Sarah Fanny Malden (1889) offers a detailed 19th-century view of Jane Austen’s life and works. The following analysis and plot summary of Persuasion focuses on the novel that many have judged to be Austen’s most mature and accomplished work.
Persuasion, the last novel Austen wrote, and Northanger Abbey, her first completed novel, were both published six months after her death in 1817.
Mrs. Malden said of her sources, “The writer wishes to express her obligations to Lord Brabourne and Mr. C. Austen Leigh for their kind permission to make use of the Memoir and Letters of their gifted relative, which have been her principal authorities for this work.”
The 1889 publication of Malden’s Jane Austen was part of an Eminent Women series published by W.H. Allen & Co., London. The following excerpt is in the public domain.
Arguably the greatest of Jane Austen’s works
In approaching Persuasion, we have to deal with the last, and, in my opinion, the greatest of Jane Austen’s works, for though Emma usually holds the first place in her writings, and although there are unquestionably one or two weak points in Persuasion from which Emma is free, I cannot but heartily state that “Persuasion is the most beautiful of all Jane Austen’s stories.”
It is, I think, the only one of those stories to which the epithet “beautiful” can appropriately be given; not that it differs in style from her earlier works or contains any intentional sentiment beyond what all her stories have, but it possesses throughout a sort of tender, pathetic grace that appears nowhere else.
A reviewer who criticized Mansfield Park in 1821 asserted that the details of Fanny Price’s attachment could scarcely have come from any writer but a woman who had herself lived through such an attachment.
It is unnecessary and, as has been seen, would probably be incorrect, to say that Jane Austen ever described love from any experience except what her genius gave her, but I think Persuasion would be far stronger testimony to her having once loved than Mansfield Park is.
Fanny Price’s apparently hopeless attachment is followed through its course with the affectionate but critical interest of one who regards a touching phase of human nature. Persuasion is in the tone of a woman who looks back upon her own early romance with sorrowful tenderness and permits to her imaginary story the happy finale which she had not experienced herself.
The heroine has a sort of subdued charm about her; she makes no brilliant speeches, and exhibits no special gifts, but from first to last, we feel that with Anne Elliot we are in the presence of a high-bred, gracious, charming woman, and nothing better could be said of Captain Wentworth than that he is worthy of her.
Jane Austen was herself conscious of having evolved a superior heroine in her last novel, for in 1816 she wrote to her niece, Fanny Knight: “I have a something ready for publication which may, perhaps, appear about a twelvemonth hence You may, perhaps, like the heroine, as she is almost too good for me.”
From first to last the story may be said to strike a minor key, for it is no longer the bright picture of young love which Jane Austen gave us in her other novels; it is the coming together of sundered lovers after the difficulties and hindrances of eight years of separation, in which neither has ever been able to forget the other.
Introducing Anne Elliot
Anne Elliot, already well into her twenties, is the second of the three daughters of Sir Walter Elliot, of Kellynch Hall, Somersetshire. She has lost her mother early and has never had congenial society in her father or sisters. Sir Walter is an intensely conceited man, of an ancient family, very handsome, even in middle life, and inordinately vain both of his birth and his looks.
His eldest daughter, Elizabeth, is himself over again; and the youngest daughter, Mary, is a common-place, self-engrossed woman.
There is no son, and the title and estate will, at Sir Walter’s death, devolve upon a cousin whom Elizabeth always intended to marry, but who, having chosen to make a mésalliance for the sake of money, has been ignored by the Kellynch Hall family ever since, although he has lately become a widower.
From such a father and such sisters, it is clear that Anne, cultivated, thoughtful, and refined, can gain no pleasant companionship, and, in fact, the only real companion she has is a very intimate friend of her mother who has settled near them.
Lady Russell is sensible, right-minded, and a little prosaic; she is not Anne’s equal intellectually, but she loves her for her mother’s sake and for her own; and Anne is thankful to be loved at all.
Enter Captain Wentworth
Frederick Wentworth makes the acquaintance of this attractive and neglected girl when she is nineteen, and in the full bloom of her beauty. He is a few years older, a young naval officer, full of spirit, energy, and brightness.
The natural consequences ensue, and for a short time the young people are rapturously happy; but both Sir Walter Elliot and Lady Russell regard the engagement with strong disfavor. He considers any untitled marriage as beneath his daughter’s acceptance, whilst Lady Russell objects to a long engagement, dislikes the uncertainty of the naval profession, and does not believe that Captain Wentworth will ever make a fortune. Thus the connection is severed.
An eight-year separation
A somewhat unexpected, yet—as in all Jane Austen’s books—apparently natural chain of circumstances brings about a meeting between the two former lovers after eight years of separation. Sir Walter Elliot, after his wife’s death, gets gradually deeper and deeper into debt.
Mr. Shepherd, Sir Walter’s confidential attorney, and Lady Russell are called upon to advise in the dilemma; and as neither Sir Walter nor Elizabeth will hear of any retrenchment which will affect their luxuries in any way, there is nothing for it but to let Kellynch Hall.
A tenant soon offers for it. Admiral Croft, and Anne remembers with a thrill at her heart that Mrs. Croft is Frederick Wentworth’s sister. Still, there is no particular likelihood of her seeing him, as Sir Walter and Elizabeth intend to go to Bath, and Anne is earnestly desirous of avoiding a meeting with her former lover.
But fate is too strong for her. Her youngest sister Mary is married to Charles Musgrove, the eldest son of a man of property living at Uppercross, about three miles from Kellynch.
Elizabeth is delighted to get rid of Anne, for she has lately struck up a violent friendship with a widowed daughter of Mr. Shepherd, a young Mrs. Clay, who is enchanted to act as hanger-on to Miss Elliot at Bath. Anne is glad to avoid Bath, which she dislikes, and to be of use to anyone. Her father, sister, and Mrs. Clay depart for Bath, and Anne is installed at the Musgroves for the summer.
A capital picture follows, in Jane Austen’s most characteristic style, of the relations between Charles Musgrove and his family, who live about a quarter of a mile from them.
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Quotes from Persuasion by Jane Austen
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The return of Captain Wentworth
The Crofts take possession of Kellynch Hall; and Captain Wentworth comes there to visit his sister. Mr. Musgrove calls upon him at Kellynch; he is invited to dine at Uppercross, and Anne can no longer avoid meeting him. None of the Musgroves know anything of the former passages between her and Captain Wentworth, so no one thinks of screening her, and Anne can only struggle to keep her feelings to herself.
Whether Captain Wentworth remembers the past as she does, she has no means of discovering, but she has soon reason to believe that he is in no way anxious to recall it.
She keeps herself in the background, prepared to hear at any moment of her former lover being now engaged to a Miss Musgrove; and the struggle in her mind is all the more severe because, in the first place, Frederick Wentworth has deteriorated neither in mind nor person since the days of their early attachment. And, in the second place, she cannot help continually how much better she can understand and appreciate him than either Henrietta or Louisa Musgrove can.
Anne is yet unforgiven
He, on his side, is not at all anxious to renew the feeling which he believes he has completely conquered. He has not forgiven Anne for her desertion of him years ago; and though he intends to marry as soon as he can find a wife to his liking, he has no idea that that wife will be Anne Elliot.
Nothing in the story is better than his attempt to persuade himself into caring for one of the young ladies with whom he is thrown into contact; and the gradual way in which he finds himself turning, as of old, to Anne for the companionship and appreciation with which she only can supply him, while he is quite unconscious of the feeling slowly working in him.
Eventually Anne departs for Bath, and, as her absence leaves an insupportable blank for him, Captain Wentworth sets off as well. Anne has been there with her father and sister for some time before his arrival, and has found an ardent admirer in the cousin, William Elliot, who is the heir to her father’s baronetcy.
Of course, the marriage would be an extremely suitable one for both parties, and Lady Russell, who is also at Bath, is delighted at the possibility of it and cannot resist speaking of it to Anne.
“I am no match-maker, as you well know,” said Lady Russell, “being much too well aware of the uncertainty of all human events and calculations. I only mean that if Mr. Elliot should some time hence pay his addresses to you, and if you should be disposed to accept him, I think there would be every possibility of your being happy together. A most suitable connection everybody must consider it, but I think it might be a very happy one.”
“Mr. Elliot is an exceedingly agreeable man, and, in many respects, I think highly of him,” said Anne, “but we should not suit.”
Anne herself cannot help believing, after Captain Wentworth has been in Bath for a short time, that she is his object there; but she is afraid to trust to this idea and is almost maddened by the quiet but unmistakable way in which Mr. Elliot monopolizes her. The moment of explanation comes at last and is one of the best and most touching scenes in all Jane Austen’s works.
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A letter expresses what words cannot
Anne, going one day to call on Mrs. Musgrove, finds Captains Wentworth and Harville both in the room. The former goes to a writing-table to write letters, and the latter begins a conversation with Anne which drifts into a debate on the strength of feeling in men as against that of women. Captain Harville defends his own sex warmly.
“Ah,” cried Captain Harville, in a tone of strong feeling, “if I could but make you comprehend what a man suffers when he takes a last look at his wife and children and watches the boat that he has sent them off in, as long as it is in sight, and then turns away and says, “God knows whether we shall ever meet again!” …
“Oh,” cried Anne, eagerly, “I hope I do justice to all that is felt by you, and by those who resemble you. God forbid that I should undervalue the warm and faithful feelings of any of my fellow-creatures! I should deserve utter contempt if I dared to suppose that true attachment and constancy were known only by women. No, I believe you capable of everything great and good in your married lives. I believe you equal to every important exertion and to every domestic forbearance so long as—if I may be allowed the expression—so long as you have an object. I mean while the woman you love lives, and lives for you. All the privilege I claim for my own sex (it is not a very enviable one: you need not covet it) is that of loving longest when existence or when hope is gone.”
She could not immediately have uttered another sentence: her heart was too full, her breath too much oppressed … Their attention was called towards the others.
Captain Wentworth then drew out the letter he had been writing and “placed it before Anne with eyes of glowing entreaty fixed on her, and, hastily collecting his gloves, was again out of the room, almost before Mrs. Musgrove was aware of his being in it: the work of an instant.”
Anne manages to read the letter in the next five minutes, but the result is to upset her so much that the Musgroves all fancy her ill, and, instead of letting her go home quietly by herself to realize her own “overpowering happiness,” as Jane Austen calls it, Charles Musgrove insists on accompanying her.
Fortunately, when halfway home, they encounter Captain Wentworth; and Charles, being anxious to keep an engagement elsewhere, puts Anne under his escort.
In half a minute Charles was at the bottom of Union Street again, and the other two proceeding together; and soon words enough had passed between them to decide their direction towards the comparatively quiet and retired gravel walk, where the power of conversation would make the present hour a blessing indeed, and prepare it for all the immortality which the happiest recollections of their own future lives could bestow.
There they exchanged again those feelings and those promises which had once before seemed to secure everything, but which had been followed by so many many years of division and estrangement; and there, as they slowly paced the gradual ascent, heedless of every group around them, seeing neither sauntering politicians, bustling housekeepers, flirting girls, nor nursery-maids and children, they could indulge in those retrospections and acknowledgments, and especially in those explanations of what had directly preceded the present moment, which were so poignant and so ceaseless in interest. All the little variations of the last week were gone through; and of yesterday and to-day there could scarcely be an end …
The evening came, the drawing-rooms were lighted up, the company assembled. It was but a card-party, it was but a mixture of those who had never met before and those who met too often: a commonplace business, too numerous for intimacy, too small for variety; but Anne had never found an evening shorter.
Glowing and lovely in sensibility and happiness, and more generally admired than she thought about or cared for, she had cheerful or forbearing feelings for every creature around her.
With the Musgroves there was the happy chat of perfect ease; with Captain Harville, the kind-hearted intercourse of brother and sister; with Lady Russell, attempts at conversation which a delicious consciousness cut short; with Admiral and Mrs. Croft, everything of peculiar cordiality and fervent interest, which the same consciousness sought to conceal; and with Captain Wentworth, some moments of communication continually occurring, and always the hope of more, and always the knowledge of his being there.
All ends well for dear Anne Elliot
Dear, charming Anne Elliot! We rejoice to feel that we are leaving her in the midst of such a tender, radiant Indian summer of happiness; and we safely predict a married life at blessedness for her and her husband; but even in this crowning hour of their felicity, there is the same tinge of pathos visible as throughout the book.
It does not seem intentional; it is rather as though the writer could no longer treat her subject with the bright gaiety of former days, and it is not wonderful that a dying woman could not.
Persuasion is the swan song of Jane Austen’s authorship, and, true to its character, the saddest and sweetest of her works. When she finished it, only a few months before her death, she had in fact laid down the pen for ever; and doubtless it was the consciousness of this which shaded the story to a more autumnal tone than anything she had yet written.
We could not wish it otherwise, for the group of novels would have been incomplete without some such story of comparatively late happiness.
In Northanger Abbey and Sense and Sensibility we have the brilliant, rather thoughtless happiness of early youth; in Mansfield Park, Emma, and Pride and Prejudice the love-story goes on in the usual way, though somewhat slowly, through the usual period of life; in Persuasion the attachment of early youth is abruptly checked, and only comes to its full perfection after eight years of separation.
The cycle is complete, and it seems as though Jane Austen would have been compelled to take some fresh departure, had she lived to write more. We regret that she did not, but we rejoice that her life was spared long enough to give us the immortal group we now possess, and we must all echo the already quoted lament of Sir Walter Scott, “What a pity such a gifted creature died so early.”
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More about Persuasion by Jane Austen
- Persuasion on Jane Austen Society of North America
- “I am half agony, half hope”
- Reader discussion on Goodreads
- Seeing the Light at Last (on re-reading Persuasion)
- Jane Austen’s Persuasion: A Study in Literary History
- Jane Austen’s Greatest Novel Turns 200
- The Six Brilliant Novels of Jane Austen (plus Sanditon)