Persuasion was Jane Austen's final novel and was not published until after her death. The story revolves around Anne Elliot and her engagement to Frederick Wentworth. The two had met during a summer near her family’s estate at Kellynch hall and fallen in love. Anne’s friend, mentor and mother figure, Lady Russell, advised her (on account of her young age) to break off the relationship. Flash forward eight years and Anne is still a single on her way to spinsterhood. Her father, Sir Walter, has mismanaged the family's affairs and must retrench to get out of debt. He relocates to Bath and sends Anne to be with her younger sister Mary at Upper-cross. Sir Walter rents Kellynch Hall to the Crofts, a retired admiral and his wife. Mrs. Croft happens to be Frederick's sister, and Mr. Wentworth soon comes to visit his brother-in-law. Anne and Frederick have a few awkward encounters, but they soon rediscover their passion for one another, though neither is sure how to reconcile. While Frederick appears to be courting Mary's sister-in-laws, Anne is approached by the family heir, Mr. Elliot. He courts her, but Anne is split between her love for Mr. Wentworth and the possibility of marrying Mr. Elliot. Her decision is made however, when she discovers through a friend that Mr. Elliot just wants to use her to gain prestige and regain Kellynch Hall. She reconciles with Mr. Wentworth and the two go sailing off into the sunset together.
I would like to discuss the importance of persuasion to Anne's decision to marry Mr. Wentworth at the end of the novel. This would fall under the classification of marriage and the family, but I would like to add the concept of relationship dynamics both within marriage and society for the sake of this post. One of the most prevalent themes of this work is the use of persuasion. Whether it is Mr. Shepherd (an advisor and friend of Sir Walter) convincing the Elliots to retrench or Lady Russell urging Anne to break off her engagement, the entire novel uses character sketches to illustrate various methods of persuasion. Mr. Shepherd appeals to Sir Walter’s vanity by telling him how prosperous he will appear in Bath, while Lady Russel appeals to Anne’s compassionate reason by telling her to pursue more socially acceptable options and allow Mr. Wentworth to do the same. Anne also tries her hands at persuasion by attempting to show her sister Elizabeth that Mrs. Smith is after their father. She fails to convince her, but her skills in persuasion grow over the course of the book until she is able to convince her father and Lady Russell that she should be able to marry Mr. Wentworth. These and other cases of socially acceptable manipulation provide readers with an entertaining case study of women in society and how they could act and be acted upon.
The women of Austen’s novels are hardly the victims of their society; rather they are strong characters that exercise their agency in persuading more often than being persuaded. Whether these women actually possessed this influence is difficult to say. Austen certainly portrays her heroines as independent and intelligent, but her own situation in life and hopes for the future may have colored her representation of the generally divided 19th century household where equality was merely rhetoric and men (save Queen Victoria) ruled British affairs. Despite these misgivings, it is certainly possible that women had as much if not more of a role in society than Austen describes. I for one am not yet persuaded.