It’s been years since I’ve revisited Persuasion. I read all of the Austen books I could get my hands on as a teenager, and remember liking this one and Pride and Prejudice best. Fine, maybe Mansfield Park is also at the top of my “favorite Austen” list. And “Love and Freindship.” Jane Austen stories are like potato chips: it’s impossible to read/pick just one.
Oddly, I really only remembered the part of the novel that occurs in Bath. And intensely identifying with Anne Elliot.
Anyway, despite being an avid reader even as a child, my awareness of the formal and conventional elements of the novel was, shall we say, lacking. Rereading not only as an adult, but as a creative writer and a scholar of the novel, I had a much different experience.
I expected the brief epistolary passages, and even the centrality of the exchange of letters to the text–early novels were, after all, often largely epistolary. I *should* have expected the extent to which the plot and action of the novel occur as exposition, but for some reason couldn’t imagine my fifteen-year-old self slogging through a novel that was primarily exposition. (Fifteen-year-old me didn’t know any better, accepted it as normal, and therefore immensely enjoyed the book.)
Even as a young reader, though, I caught on to Austen’s sarcasm, her critical portrayal of society and the conventions of the marriage plot as well as of femininity. Persuasion is, perhaps, the text in which these elements are most prominent. Anne Elliot doesn’t marry a Mr. Darcy. Her life doesn’t follow the upwardly mobile trajectory sketched out for Elizabeth Bennet or Jane Bennet. In fact, her story demonstrates that the socially-minded advice of well meaning friends and relatives cannot–and should not–be automatically trusted or followed. Sure, she marries into money in the end, but she marries “down,” privileging good company, which she defines as “the company of clever, well-informed people, who have a great deal of conversation” over social status or rank, the “good company” with which her father and older sister are so obsessed (Austen 182).
What else did I notice? Persuasion is full of disrupted domestic models. Kellynch hall, since the death of Lady Elliot, has been dominated by a sense of name, rank, and narcissistic self-importance such that its inhabitants can no longer feasibly inhabit it; although Admiral and Mrs. Croft might endow the space renewed domesticity with their own peculiar domestic relationship, Anne Elltiot (despite a loving remembrance of the house and the grounds as domestic when inhabited by her mother) doesn’t experience Kellynch as domestic. Anne does have a semi-domestic role at Uppercross, where she fills the shoes of her vain, valetudinarian sister Mary. She mothers her nephews and acts as a social mediator between the residents of Uppercross and the Great House. But Mary and Charles Musgrove’s dysfunctional marriage emphasizes the dysfunctional, or disrupted, domesticity of that place as well. We might see gestures toward a successful domestic space at the end of the novel, but since we’ve never seen Anne Wentworth at home in a domestic capacity, there is never a real model of domesticity that Anne actually occupies. (The closest we come is the Harville home, which is likely a hint at the sort of home Anne and Captain Wentworth will occupy.)
If Persuasion is a novel of manners, it is extremely ironic that its protagonist is (to risk an anachronism) an introvert. Although Anne Elliot is able to understand and navigate the complex social duties required of her, and although she is the model of the proper lady who allows for successful socialization, or “good company” in her words, she is also the readiest to critique and abandon the social scene which she and her fellow characters are to model.