The Theme of Persuasion in Persuasion
Like many of Jane Austen’s novels what you see is what you get and the major theme of the novel is usually helpfully pointed out in the title! In Persuasion, Jane Austen presents Anne Elliot, her father, her sisters, her friends and her acquaintances in terms of their persuadability or ‘unpersuadability’. Therefore, we are here invited by Austen to judge the characters of Persuasion within this narrow frame of reference provided by its title.
Anne Elliot’s seven years of suffering arise directly from her having been persuaded by Lady Russell to end her association with Captain Wentworth. The cautious Lady Russell, we are told, regarded the connection with Wentworth as ‘a most unfortunate one’, and ‘deprecated the connection in every light’. The central passage follows; in which we find the key to Anne’s subsequent misfortunes:
Such opposition, as these feelings produced, was more than Anne could combat. Young and gentle as she was, it might yet have been possible to withstand her father’s ill-will, though unsoftened by one kind word or look on the part of her sister; but lady Russell, whom she had always loved and relied on, could not, with such steadiness of opinion, and such tenderness of manner, be continually advising her in vain. She was persuaded to believe the engagement a wrong thing; indiscreet, improper, hardly capable of success, and not deserving it (Chap 4).
This is where the theme of persuasion is first raised and the plot develops from here. The second example of persuasion is largely devoted to attempts to persuade Sir Walter to live within his means. Lady Russell draws up plans to help the family economise: ‘If we can persuade your father to all this, much may be done’. She has no success, and Mr Shepherd, ‘who was perfectly persuaded that nothing could be done without a change of abode’, is able to have his plan for retrenchment accepted, not on its merits, but because it seems to Sir Walter to entail the least sacrifice. They move to Bath because Sir Walter and Elizabeth ‘were induced to believe that they should lose neither consequence nor enjoyment by settling there’. Louisa Musgrove tries to impress on Captain Wentworth the contrast between Anne and herself. She knows that Anne’s persuadability has caused her to forfeit Wentworth’s esteem. She is determined, therefore, to appear unpersuadable, at least temporarily. Anne overhears her making her point:
What! Would I be turned back from doing a thing that I had determined to do, and that I knew to be right, by the airs and interference of such a person, or any person, I may say? No, I have no idea of being so easily persuaded. When I have made up my mind, I have made it (Chap 10).
Wentworth responds with warm admiration, and the listening Anne can take his comment on what she fancies he must think of her earlier conduct:
It is the worst evil of too yielding and indecisive a character that no influence over it can be depended on. Let those who would be happy be firm (Chap 10).
This last comment is somewhat ironic in the light of the incident at Lyme when Louisa’s vaunted firmness causes her to crack her skull!:
And instantly, to show her enjoyment, she ran up the steps to be jumped down again. He advised her against it, thought the jar too great; but no, he reasoned and talked in vain; she smiled and said: I am determined I will; he put out his hands; she was too precipitate by half a second, she fell on the pavement on the Lower Cobb and was taken up lifeless (Chap 12).
We learn from Louisa that Henrietta is persuadable to the point of having no mind of her own:
And Henrietta seemed entirely to have made up her mind to call at Winthrop to-day; and yet she was as near giving it up out of nonsensical complaisance (Chap 10).
We can see clearly from these examples that persuasion is central to the novel and some critics find this limiting in that we, the readers, are being manipulated mainly to illustrate this abstract principle; or to make a moral point just as the writer of a traditional fable might arrange his or her materials. However, there is more to the novel and indeed the novel is most enjoyable when Jane Austen forgets about this notion of persuasion and entertains us with closely observed social comedy and satirical touches.
There are also a number of other subsidiary themes in Persuasion. All of Jane Austen’s novels are social comedies, and much of the comedy arises from the follies and absurdities of her comic figures. At some points in the novel, the comedy takes on the harsher tones of satire, whose main victims are Sir Walter and Mrs Musgrove. Among the recurring sources of comedy and satire in Persuasion are Sir Walter’s false pride, his exaggerated notions of his own importance, his condescending attitude to those he considers inferior to himself, and his vanity in his personal appearance. Sir Walter is sometimes described as a snob. This is a person whose ideas and conduct are prompted by a vulgar admiration for wealth or social position. There are elements of snobbery in sir Walter and Elizabeth. Both of them do, indeed, defer to those of superior social standing. Sir Walter wonders whether they should present the worthy Admiral Croft and his wife at Laura Place to meet Lady Dalrymple and Miss Carteret:
Situated as we are with Lady Dalrymple, cousins, we ought to be very careful not to embarrass her with an acquaintance she might not approve. If we were not related, it would not signify; but as cousins, she would feel scrupulous as to any proposal of ours. We had better leave the Crofts to find their own level. There are several odd-looking men walking about here, who, I am told, are sailors. The Crofts will associate with them (Chap 18).
Sir Walter also displays another prejudice of the snob: contempt for those below him on the social scale. Anne has been visiting Mrs Smith with the approval of Lady Russell, but Sir Walter is disgusted:
A widow, Mrs Smith, lodging in Westgage Buildings! A poor widow, barely able to live, between thirty and forty – a mere Mrs Smith – an every day Mrs Smith, of all people and all names in the world, to be the chosen friend of Miss Anne Elliot, and to be preferred by her to her own family connections among the nobility of England and Ireland! Mrs Smith – such a name! (Chap 17).
In Sir Walter, we are presented with a portrait of the quintessential egotist. His self-esteem and self-contemplation make it easy for us to label him a narcissist; proud of his fine appearance, anxious to preserve it, and frequently admiring it in his large collection of mirrors! Jane Austen damns him with faint praise:
Vanity was the beginning and the end of Sir Walter’s character – vanity of appearance and of situation. He had been remarkably handsome in his youth, and, at fifty-four, was still a very fine man. Few women could think more of their personal appearance than he did, nor could the valet of any new made lord be more delighted with the place he held in society. He considered the blessing of beauty as inferior only to the blessing of a baronetcy; and the Sir Walter Elliot who united these gifts was the constant object of his warmest respect and devotion (Chap 1).
Another recurring theme in Persuasion is introduced in the opening chapter, where we learn that ‘a few years before, Anne had been a very pretty girl, but her bloom had vanished early’. In a sense, Persuasion is about the loss and return of youthful beauty and vigour. Again and again, we find references to physical appearance, the ravages of time, the vain struggle to avert its consequences. Sir Walter thinks Elizabeth and himself,
as blooming as ever, amidst the wreck of the good looks of everybody else; for he could plainly see how old all the rest of his family and friends were growing. Anne haggard, Mary coarse, every face in the neighbourhood worsting; and the rapid increase of the crow’s feet about Lady Russell’s temples had long been a distress to him (Chap 1).
On the steps at Lyme, Anne, ‘the bloom and freshness of youth restored by the fine wind’, wins the admiration of Mr Elliot and Captain Wentworth. The latter seems to see ‘something like Anne Elliot again’. The ‘new’ Anne Elliot appears in all her radiance as she is finally secure in Wentworth’s love, ‘glowing and lovely in sensibility and happiness and more generally admired than she thought about or cared for’.
Old Age/Human Decay
The theme of advancing age and human decay are underlined in the numerous references to the rhythms of nature. The following is an impressive example; the reference is to Elizabeth:
Thirteen winters’ revolving frosts had seen her opening every ball of credit which a scanty neighbourhood afforded; thirteen springs had shown blossoms, as she travelled up to London with her father, for a few weeks’ annual enjoyment of the great world. She had the remembrance of all this; she had the consciousness of being nine-and-twenty, to give her some regrets and some apprehensions; she was fully satisfied of being still quite as handsome as ever (Chap 1).
The Somerset chapters are also coloured by references to the autumnal landscape, which reflects Anne’s moods as she waits, without much hope, for ‘a second spring of youth and beauty’ (Chap 13).
The visitors to Lyme are impressed by the romantic landscape, described in almost guide-book fashion, ‘green chasms between romantic rocks, scattered forest trees and orchards of luxuriant growth’. They are also invigorated by ‘the fresh-feeling breeze’ by the sea. The most moving ‘natural’ passage is that conveying Anne’s feelings as she prepares to leave for Bath:
An hour’s complete leisure for such reflections as these, on a dark November day, a small thick rain almost blotting out the very few objects ever to be discerned from the windows, was enough to make the sound of Lady Russell’s carriage exceedingly welcome; and yet, though desirous to be gone, she could not quit the Mansion-house, or look adieu to the Cottage, with its black, dripping and comfortless verandah, or even notice through the misty glasses the last humble tenements of the village, without a saddened heart (Chap 13).
Passages such as these make Persuasion the most poetic of Jane Austen’s novels. The descriptions are not there simply for atmosphere and background; in passages like the last one there is profound interaction between external nature and the mind of the character who beholds it; for the reader, Anne’s mood becomes part of the gloomy November landscape.
Murray, Patrick. Persuasion in Inscapes 13, The Educational Company of Ireland, 1978
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