Jane Austen’s Novel Persuasion

Jane Austen. Public domain.

The first draft of Jane Austen’s novel “Persuasion,” a romantic novel that examines human foibles and flaws, was completed on 18 July 1816. Apparently, however, according to her nephew and biographer, James Edward Austen-Leigh, she was unhappy:

“[H]er performance did not satisfy her. She thought it tame and flat, and was desirous of producing something better. This weighed upon her mind, the more so probably on account of the weak state of her health; so that one night she retired to rest in very low spirits.”[1]

Her low spirits encouraged her to revise it and she finished it on 6 August 1816 (two chapters of her manuscript that were cancelled can be viewed by clicking here). However, according to Jocelyn Harris, Emeritus Professor of English at the University of Otago, New Zealand, Jane continued to tinker with it and probably didn’t actually finalize it until 27 January 1817. After it was completed, Jane made a cryptic mention of “Persuasion” in a letter she wrote to her niece, Fanny Knight that was dated 13 March 1817:

“I will answer your kind questions more than you expect. ‘Miss Catherine’ is put upon the shelf for the present, and I do not know that she will ever come out; but I have something ready for publication which may perhaps appear about a twelvemonth hence. It is short, – about the length of ’Catherine’ [renamed Northanger Abbey]. This is for yourself alone.”[2]

Jane died on 18 July 1817 without “Persuasion” having been published. One reason she may have withheld it (and other works) from publication was proposed by her brother Henry who stated:  

“[T]hough in composition she was equally rapid and correct, yet an invincible distrust of her own judgment induced her to withhold her works from the public, till time and many perusals had satisfied her that the charm of recent composition was dissolved. The natural constitution, the regular habits, the quiet and happy occupations of our authoress, seemed to promise a long succession of amusement to the public, and a gradual increase of reputation to herself.”[3]

Title page to “Persuasion”. Public domain.

Prior to her death, only Jane’s family and close friends knew that she was the author of her works, while the majority of her readers had no idea. She would only receive written credit after her death. For instance, when “Sense and Sensibility” was published in 1811, the title page stated that it was written “By A Lady.” The public learned Jane was the author of her works when on 22 July 1817 the “London Courier and Evening Gazette” mentioned her abilities in her death notice stating:

“On the 18th inst. at Winchester, Miss Jane Austen, youngest daughter of the late Rev. George Austen, Rector of Steventon, in Hampshire, and Authoress of Emma, Mansfield Park, Pride and Prejudice, and Sense and Sensibility. Her manners were most gentle; her affections ardent; her candor was not to be surpassed, and she lived and died as became a humble Christian.”[4]

Henry Austen. Public domain.

“Persuasion” was not the name Jane likely intended to publish her book under. She referred to her posthumous publication as “The Elliots,” but there is no documentation that she actually intended to call it such, and, so, it was probably 46-year-old Henry who selected the title. Publication of the novel also fell to him and Jane’s sister Cassandra, as they are the ones that negotiated its publication with John Murray. The title page showed a publication date of 1818, but it was actually published in December 1817 under the title of “Northanger Abbey: and Persuasion.”

When “Persuasion” came out, Henry, who had recently become an Anglican clergyman, wrote a biographical notice of his sister. His notice was of her was highly praiseworthy, and he could not have presented his 42-year-old sister in a saintlier light. He referred to her as “tranquil,” “faultless,” and “thoroughly religious.” In addition, Henry noted:

“Her own works, probably, were never heard to so much advantage as from her own mouth; for she partook largely in all the best gifts of the comic muse.”[5]

In her novel, Jane referred to fictional locations, such as Thornberry Park, Winthrop, Kellynch, Monkford, and South Park. She also mentioned real locations that she was familiar with or had visited. One example is Lyme-Regis. She and her parents had visited the Dorset coast on the border of Devon and they took lodging at Lyme-Regis in September of 1804. Jane found the area so delightful she ensured her character in “Persuasion” mentioned her approval of the area’s beauty and grandeur:

“[S]he makes Anne Elliot say of Lyme, ‘So much novelty and beauty! I have travelled so little that every fresh place must be interesting to me; but there is real beauty at Lyme, and, in short, my impressions of the place are very agreeable.’”[6]

Silhouette of Cassandra. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Another location Jane mentioned in “Persuasion” was one of the most popular inns in the city of Bath. It was the White Hart Inn. She also commented on the location in a letter to Cassandra in September of 1813 stating:

“Now for Bath. Poor F. Cage has suffered a good deal from her accident. The noise of the White Hart was terrible to her – They will keep her quiet I daresay. She is not so much delighted with the place as the rest of the Party.”[7]

Jane also used the White Hart Inn as the spot where her heroine Anne met her future husband, Captain Frederick Wentworth. Another thing of interest about the inn was its owner, Eleazer Pickwick. He inspired Charles Dickens’ character Samuel Pickwick in Dickens’ first novel, “The Pickwick Papers.” Eleazer was the person that also created the Pickwick fortune and he linked up the coaching business to the Bath inn. One newspaper commented on the particulars of the inn:

“The Pickwicks were very particular about the appointments of the inn. They waiters wore breeches and silk stockings; the women a peculiar kind of close-fitting dress and net white muslin caps, with white “bibs” hanging from their necks. Very potent were the drinks dispensed, one probably consisting of a special brand of French brandy, which received the name of ‘five shilling and costs’ — probably due to the frequent enforced visits to the city police courts by those who imbibed too freely.”[8]

Jane was witty and because satire was popular in the Georgian Era, she used it in her novels. Sometimes she also liked to make her characters the butts of jokes. For instance, in “Persuasion,” she used the following conversation between the attention-seeking Mrs. Mary Musgrove and the strong-minded Mrs. Sophia Croft to make a sarcastic pun at Mrs. Musgrove’s expense:

“‘What a great traveller you must have been, ma’am!’ said Mrs. Musgrove to Mrs. Croft. ‘Pretty well, ma’am, in the fifteen years of my marriage; though many women have done more. I have crossed the Atlantic four times, and have been once to the East Indies, and back again, and only once; besides being in different places about home — Cork, and Lisbon, and Gibraltar. But I never went beyond the Streights, and never was in the West Indies. We do not call Bermuda or Bahama, you know, the West Indies.’

Mrs. Musgrove had not a word to say in dissent; she could not accuse herself of having ever called them any thing in the whole course of her life.”[9]

Jane also pointed out rank and gentlemanly behavior in her novel by using the characters of Admiral Croft and Captain Wentworth. Rank was so ingrained that Jane’s contemporaries didn’t give it a second thought, and everyone knew the pecking order and maintained it. For instance, when servants waited on people there was a protocol for serving them based on rank. (To learn more about this serving order click here for men and here for women.) Even Jane observed and followed correct protocol in her novels, although she also occasionally poked fun at it.

Jane was not remiss in mentioning terms whose definitions were changing. For instance, at the time of “Persuasion,” the term gentleman was undergoing a transition and moving from meaning a man who owned property to a man who was courteous and well-educated. One scene where this was accomplished, she used the vain and uppity baron, Sir Walter Elliot, when he stated:

“Wentworth? Oh ay, Mr. Wentworth, the curate of Monkford. You misled me by the term gentleman. I thought you were speaking of some man of property: Mr. Wentworth was nobody, I remember; quite unconnected; nothing to do with the Stafford family. One wonders how the names of many of our nobility became so common.”[10]

Charles Austen. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

As to the basis for her book “Persuasion,” a Canadian scholar, Sheila Johnson Kindred, maintains that parts of the novel were inspired by Jane’s brother, Charles Austen. He served as a Royal Navy officer during the French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars, and later rose to the rank of Rear-Admiral. The fictional Captain Wentworth’s career matches similarities of Charles’ career. For instance, according to Wikipedia, both began their careers at the same age, both were in command of sloops in the North America station, both were popular with their crews, both progressed to the command of frigates, and both were excited to share their prize money with their crews. Moreover, Charles’ wife, Fanny, bears similarities to the fictional Mrs. Croft because both women lived aboard naval vessels, crossed the Atlantic four times, and lived in Bermuda and Halifax.

Jane wrote her novels for her contemporaries. She mastered realism by observing the social, political, and economical events of her times and by commenting on women’s rights, home life, morality, religion, and etiquette. Her characters also had real life experiences and feelings that ranged from love, loneliness, and humiliation to frustration, pride, and jealousy. Moreover, although she wrote love stories and focused on dating rituals, flirting, courtship, marriage, and gentlemanly and womanly behavior, only one passionate love speech happened in any of her novels. It occurred in “Persuasion” when Captain Wentworth could no longer contain himself and expressed his desires in a letter to Anne stating:

“I can listen no longer in silence. I must speak to you by such means as are within my reach. You pierce my soul. I am half agony, half hope. Tell me not that I am too late, that such precious feelings are gone for ever. I offer myself to you again with a heart even more your own, than when you almost broke it … Dare not say that man forgets sooner than woman, that his love has an earlier death. I have loved none but you.”[11]  

Shortly after Jane’s novel came out, in May of 1818, a review of “Northanger Abbey” and “Persuasion” was written by “The Edinburgh Magazine.” The magazine noted:

“The singular merit of her writings is, that we could conceive, without the slightest strain of imagination, any one of her fictions to be realized in any town or village in England … that we think we are reading the history of people whom we have seen thousands of times, and that with all this perfect commonness, both of incident and character, perhaps not one of her characters is to be found in any other book, pourtrayed at least in so lively and interesting a manner. She has much observation, – much fine sense, – much delicate humour, – many pathetic touches, and throughout all her works, a most charitable view of human nature, and a tone of gentleness and purity that are almost unequalled. It is unnecessary to give a particular account of the stories here presented to us … The first [Northanger Abbey] is more lively, and the second [Persuasion] more pathetic; but such is the facility and the seemingly exhaustless invention of this lady, that, we think, like a complete mistress of a musical instrument, she could have gone on in the same strain for ever, and her happy talent of seeing something to interest in the most common scenes of life, could evidently never have been without a field to work upon. But death has deprived us of this most fascinating companion.”[12]

Jane’s romantic and small literary output — six novels, two partial novels, two dozen youthful fiction pieces, and a novella — have proved to be timeless, and we have indeed been deprived of a most “fascinating companion.” Moreover, “Persuasion” has remained popular. It has been cast in various adaptations that include television, film, and theatre.

Perhaps, one of the reasons that Jane continues to fascinate us is because she wrote many memorable lines. One line that cannot be forgotten and is and frequently quoted comes from “Pride and Prejudice”:

“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”

And then there is this line from “Persuasion”:

“Let us never underestimate the power of a well-written letter.”

References:

  • [1] J. Harris, A Revolution Almost Beyond Expression: Jane Austen’s Persuasion (Newark: University of Delaware Press, 2007), p. 37.
  • [2] O. F. Adams, The Story of Jane Austen’s Life (Chicago: A. C. McClurg, 1891), p. 13.
  • [3] J. Austen, Sense and Sensibility: A Novel (Richard Bentley, 1833), p. v–vi.
  • [4] London Courier and Evening Gazette, “Died,” July 22, 1817, p. 4.
  • [5] J. Austen and H. T. Austen, Northanger Abbey: And Persuasion v. 1 (London: John Murray, 1818), p. xiv.
  • [6] O. F. Adams, p. 88.
  • [7] J. Austen and V. Jones, Selected Letters (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), p. 152.
  • [8] Bath Chronicle, “The Pickwicks of Bath,” August 11, 1923, p. 18.
  • [9] J. Austen, Northanger abbey [followed by] Persuasion (London: R. Bentley, 1833), p. 275.
  • [10] Ibid., p. 234.
  • [11] J. Austen, p. 426.
  • [12] The Edinburgh magazine, and literary miscellany, a new series of The Scots magazine (Edinburgh, 1818), 453–54.

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