“None of us want to be in calm waters all our lives.”
I first read Persuasion at school, where I studied it in sixth form, one of those experiences which either ruins the book completely or makes you love it for ever, depending on the teacher and how inclined you were to like the book in the first place. In Persuasion‘s case, it was the latter: it’s my second-favourite of Austen’s novels (after Northanger Abbey), and it only gets better with re-reading.
Anne Elliot, the novel’s heroine, is twenty-six (old, for an Austen heroine), faded and sad, having turned down the love of her life, a naval officer known as Captain Wentworth, eight years ago on the advice of her friend Lady Russell. Persuasion sees her getting a second chance, at life and at love.
I realise that all of that kind of sounds like a Sophie Kinsella novel, but what Persuasion is, I think, really registering through its romantic plot is a form of social commentary. Anne is depressed because she threw Wentworth away, of course, but she’s also depressed because she’s underappreciated by her family and immediate social circle, who value rank and consequence above intelligence and good sense: her specific romantic disappointment is underscored by a broader social one, so that what Persuasion is really about is a move from a corrupt aristocracy which values prestige for prestige’s sake to a meritocracy (the British Navy) of intelligent and genuine people who value each other for their respective abilities.
Which doesn’t mean that Austen is being democratic, or anything like that: she’s quite rude about some of lower-class inhabitants of Lyme Regis when Anne and a group of her family circle visit the town for an ill-fated holiday, and Anne is horrified at the possibility that her father might be being seduced by the widowed daughter of his lawyer. Persuasion sees rank as in general A Good Thing, so long as it is not valued for its own sake; so long as those with rank have something other than rank to recommend it. Which is a rather good description, as it happens, of the navy of the Napoleonic era. Captain Wentworth is, as I have said before, my favourite of the Austen heroes, possibly because he is now interchangeable in my head with Captain Laurence of the Temeraire books. Wentworth is flawed, but not irredeemable; headstrong yet polite; proud yet genuine. If Austen’s other novels chart the growth of a heroine – Elizabeth Bennet, Catherine Tilney, Emma Woodhouse – Persuasion charts the growth of a hero; a progression from wrongheaded pride to acceptance. It’s an interesting choice given that Wentworth’s growth is filtered through Anne’s own perception, and that Anne herself doesn’t really change at all; or, if she does, it’s more of a regression to the self-confidence and bloom of youth. Our main character is static, grounding a set of morals and values which Austen assumes the reader shares while the social milieu shifts around her, so that the navy can become a worthy repository for kindness and intelligence while the insubstantial society of Bath empties of it. Slight as it is, Persuasion is interested not in individual growth but in the growth of a new kind of society.
Anne’s apparent saintliness annoys a lot of readers, but for me she’s redeemed by her inner voice, the voice that recognises her family circle as ridiculous and ignorant without letting her act on that recognition. She feels real and worthy of respect, doing her duty as far as she can to the social circle in which she finds herself, making the best of her situation. There are compromises and complications, of course, but then there are in real life, too: it’s that autumnally-flavoured nuance that makes Persuasion one of Austen’s most satisfying novels.