"Persuasion" is Jane Austen’s thoughtful novel that perfectly balances tradition and modernity. With Netflix coming out with a new adaption next year, it’s a great time to re-examine what this book has to say about love and relationships. Spoilers: it’s not straightforward advice, but it’s solid and timeless all the same!
Jane Austen is the queen of 19th-century British romance. In her classic love stories, Austen shows her readers what life was like for women living in her time period and exposes universal truths about society, humanity, and inner feelings. Persuasion is often called her most mature work. It was one of the last books Austen wrote, published after her death, and sets quite a different tone from her wildly popular novels Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, and Emma.
At the heart of Persuasion is the heroine, Anne Elliot. She’s 27 years old and unmarried—past the bloom of youth, a spinster by 19th-century standards. The reason? Eight years before the story begins, Anne was persuaded by Lady Russell, a mentor and family friend, to break off her engagement to the love of her life, Captain Wentworth. Lady Russell thought him low-status and not financially secure enough to provide for Anne. Anne has been brokenhearted ever since.
Follow Your Heart, and Be Assertive
I have to admit, I didn’t like Anne the first time I read Persuasion. She was a pushover. She lets herself be pushed around by her selfish sisters and snobby father, and everybody overlooks her until they need her for something. She doesn’t have that Austen heroine vitality, nor is she witty or sarcastic—she spent most of her life depressed and disrespected. She’s the opposite of assertive—even when Captain Wentworth reappears in her life, now wealthy and accomplished, she hesitates to approach him and helplessly waits for circumstances to rescue her.
Not standing up for herself or the validity of her feelings lost Anne eight years of happiness.
They do in the end—because Wentworth realizes that he still loves her—but not before he wavers because of Anne’s supposed “weakness and timidity” and “yielding and indecisive” character. This is not an instantly likable heroine! It seems as though Austen wants us to learn from Anne’s mistakes. Not standing up for herself or the validity of her feelings lost Anne eight years of happiness. We must avoid this, and not be afraid of marrying early just because of social pressure.
Follow Your Duty, and Be Persuadable
Indeed, there are many benefits to marrying young, but is “follow your heart” the ultimate moral of Austen’s last complete novel? A closer re-reading of the book shows that this is not the case. Crucially, Anne insists at the end of the story that “I was right in submitting to [Lady Russell], and if I had done otherwise, I should have suffered more in continuing the engagement than I did even in giving it up, because I should have suffered in my conscience.”
She then asserts, “A strong sense of duty is no bad part of a woman’s portion.” Anne felt justified that she listened to Lady Russell, who was like a mother to her, even though the advice she gave turned out to be wrong. Because she followed her duty, Anne is freed from any guilt.
In Persuasion, duty and prudence win. For much of the story, Anne is played against her sister-in-law Louisa, her opposite in every way. Unlike Anne, Louisa is young, brash, and energetic. She likes to show off, and once she makes a decision, she sticks with it even when she's advised not to. Louisa spends much of the book pursuing a relationship with Captain Wentworth while Anne anxiously looks on. Wentworth begrudges Anne for caving at Lady Russell’s advice and breaking his heart. At first, he thinks he liked Louisa’s more stubborn and risk-loving nature—but the turning point of the book comes when Louisa decides to jump from a dangerous height and gets injured as a result.
Anne’s good judgement and persuadable nature was the very thing that made her character worthy.
As Anne takes charge of the situation, dispatching people to get help and keeping her head in a crisis, Captain Wentworth is able to fully appreciate the value of Anne’s sensibility and quiet strength. It takes strength to put up with unappreciative family members and keep a sweet temper, and patient humility to serve others without drawing attention to yourself. That is exactly the heroine Anne is, and she's rewarded for it: “A persuadable temper might sometimes be as much in favor of happiness as a very resolute character.” In the end, Anne regained her true love just by being herself, not by changing herself somehow to be more resolute or foolhardy.
True Love Is True Friendship (and Trusting in Fate)
So, this is what brought me to like and respect Anne, and to appreciate the book’s complex theme. Jane Austen leaves open the question of tradition versus modernity when it comes to love. Men and women are marrying later—we pursue the same sort of security Anne sought when she broke off her first engagement, but as it turned out, Lady Russell’s advice was wrong. Or, we may marry young regardless of others’ advice—but Anne’s good judgement and persuadable nature was the very thing that made her character worthy. This conflict between caution and passion resounds throughout the book and through our decision-making in our own relationships.
Anne’s eventual happiness comes not from her own measures and precautions, but from trusting in the constant love of Captain Wentworth.
But to Austen, true love is neither an economic alliance of propriety and social expectations, nor passion, risk, and following your heart. In Persuasion, the “most attractive picture of happiness” as a couple was Admiral and Mrs. Croft (Captain Wentworth’s sister). They're always seen together, making intelligent conversation and enjoying each other’s company. And they had married young, for simple reasons—before they met, Mrs. Croft knew of Admiral Croft’s good character, and he knew only that she was a very pretty girl. “What were we to wait for besides?” comments Admiral Croft. “I do not like having such things so long in hand.”
The Crofts were spiritually and intellectually compatible, just like Anne and Captain Wentworth. Although unlike Anne, who broke off her first engagement, they wedded as soon as they got to know each other. Jane Austen isn’t telling women to marry young or to wait: the timing of the marriage matters much less than an open heart that trusts in fate to make the marriage come out all right. In the same way, Anne’s eventual happiness comes not from her own measures and precautions, but from trusting in the constant love of Captain Wentworth and the providential events that brought them together once again.
Anne Elliot in Persuasion learns to follow her own heart and listen to her feelings, long repressed by caution and duty. But amazingly, in the course of the story, she does not abandon duty or throw caution to the wind. In Anne’s world as well as our own, it's possible to strike this balance, and, with fate, a persuadable soul can find true friendship and love.