‘Persuasion:’ Jane Austen’s greatest novel turns 200


Robert Morrison, Queen’s University, Ontario

When I was asked a few years ago if I would like to edit one of Jane Austen’s novels, I quickly answered that I would be happy to, and especially if I could edit her greatest novel.

“I’m sorry, Rob,” was the reply. “Someone is already editing Pride and Prejudice.”

“That’s ok,” I said, much relieved. “Pride and Prejudice is not Austen’s greatest novel. Jane Austen’s greatest novel is Persuasion.”

It is – among many other things – the most moving love story she ever told. Anne Elliot is the second daughter of the absurdly vain baronet Sir Walter Elliot of Kellynch Hall. Frederick Wentworth is an officer in the British navy during the Napoleonic Wars.

Eight years before the novel begins, Wentworth proposes to Anne and she accepts him after a brief and intense courtship, only to be persuaded by her father and her older friend Lady Russell to break off the engagement. Wentworth, angry and badly hurt, goes back to sea, where he conducts a successful series of raiding expeditions on enemy ships, and amasses a fortune in prize money.

When Napoleon abdicates for the first time in April 1814, Wentworth returns to England and soon pays a visit to his sister, who now lives near Anne. Throughout his absence, meanwhile, Anne has found no one who compares to him, and has pined away to the point where now, at 27 years old, her bloom is gone and she has begun the descent into spinsterhood.

Many critics have argued that, as a result of suffering and regret, Anne is already “mature” when the novel opens, while the rich and carefree Wentworth has a good deal of growing up to do before he recognizes – or, rather, re-recognizes – her worth.

On the contrary, for all that divides them when he returns, Anne has as much to learn about love as Wentworth does, and her journey toward their reconciliation contains as much confusion as his. Indeed, part of the enormous appeal of Persuasion is Austen’s ability to convey the ways in which Wentworth and Anne are moving steadily toward one another even as their various missteps, flirtations and assumptions seem to be driving them still further apart.

Their reunion is the finest scene in all of Austen, and in it they do not even speak face to face, for Austen understood that mediated and misdirected messages frequently carry a far greater charge than explicit declarations.

Anne and Wentworth are both in a room at the White Hart Inn in Bath. He is sitting at a desk writing a letter. She is nearby speaking to a mutual friend, Captain Harville, about men, women and constancy.

Harville believes that men feel more deeply than women. Anne takes the opposite view, and while she does not mention Wentworth or her own circumstances, everything she says is clearly with him in mind.

She has spoken to no one about her grief over Wentworth, and it is not long before eight years of pent-up anguish flood out of her. “We certainly do not forget you, so soon as you forget us,” she tells Harville. “It is, perhaps, our fate rather than our merit. We cannot help ourselves. We live at home, quiet, confined, and our feelings prey upon us.”

Wentworth, still writing his letter, overhears Anne’s comments and knows immediately that she is speaking about their relationship, and about all that has been lost.

Seizing another sheet of paper, he begins a second letter in which he records his feelings toward her as she utters hers toward him, and which he leaves behind on the desk for her to read.

Captain Wentworth shows his letter to Anne, with eyes of glowing entreaty fixed on her.
(C. E. Brock)

Ralph Waldo Emerson objected to Austen’s novels because he found them “imprisoned in the wretched conventions of English society, without genius, wit, or knowledge of the world.”

But Austen knew that love is the very largest concern of life, then as now, and in Persuasion she makes Anne’s whole world hang on a single letter. It is a moment that demonstrates both the superb compression and the enduring appeal of her art.

If Wentworth loves Anne, she has a future that stretches as far as the seas. If he does not, she has only a past that will increasingly consume her. She reads the letter. He does love her. Her joy is inexpressible. So is ours.

What’s more, Austen has contrived to tell both Anne and the reader at the same time, and her passionate affirmation of personal preference and individual desire far transcends the “wretched conventions of English society.”

“You pierce my soul,” Wentworth’s letter reads. “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 eight years and a half ago.” Anne is overwhelmed.

During the novel she has been transformed, from faded to blooming, from nobody to somebody, from “only Anne” within her family to Wentworth’s “only Anne.”

Persuasion is Austen’s last published work. She began it when she was nearly 40 years old, and when she finished it she was within a year of her death. Perhaps not surprisingly, it is one of her shortest – and it is certainly her saddest – novel.

But it is also her subtlest and most impassioned. “After a long immersion in [Austen’s] work,” British novelist Martin Amis writes, “I find that her thought rhythms entirely invade my own.”

The ConversationFor me, nowhere are Austen’s “thought rhythms” more haunting than in Anne’s conversation with Harville, and Wentworth’s response to her in his letter. More broadly, in its blend of the public and the personal, Persuasion explores both the torment of silence and the value of hope.

Robert Morrison, Professor of English Language and Literature, Queen’s University, Ontario

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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‘The Reformers and Their Stepchildren,’ by Leonard Verduin


I have been reading ‘The Reformers and Their Stepchildren,’ by Leonard Verduin, in the last week or so. It is not the first time that I have read this book, having read it some time ago – probably 10 years ago now I would say.

This is a book that I would recommend to any believer, but particularly to a Reformed believer, whether he be Paedobaptist or Baptist. Verduin seeks to analyse the Reformation and the relationship between the Reformers and their ‘stepchildren’ from a Biblical standpoint, rather than any particular denominational standpoint. Though he does defend the stepchildren, he does so only when they are in line with Scriptural teaching on the point being discussed within that particular chapter.

Who are the stepchildren? The stepchildren or the ‘second front,’ as Verduin also describes them, are those believers who sought a complete reforming of the church. In fact, it may be fair to say that these believers sought a complete break from the Romish church, and a new church built on the teachings of Scripture and modelled on the New Testament church alone.

The frustration for these nonconformist believers was that the reform movement only went so far and did not result in the complete renewal that they desired and that the situation required.

Thus far I have read only the first two chapters of the book and once again I am finding it a very worthwhile read. I find myself in substantial agreement with the position of many of the stepchildren and with Verduin. With as much respect as I have for the Reformers, such as John Calvin, Martin Luther and John Knox, I too would have found myself frustrated at the level of reform achieved by them (though they were better men than I). A complete break and renewal would have been the way forward I believe.

The first two chapters deal with the joint secular-religious church-state that was set up at both the time of Constantine and then at the Reformation in the various Protestant nations that embraced the Reformation. They deal with the all-embracing religion that was constructed in such centres as Geneva and the ‘unified’ approach to it, as well as the reaction of the stepchildren and their withdrawal from it.

This book is as close to a must read for believers as there is I think – especially of the Reformed persuasion.

My copy of the book (paperback) is by William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. and was printed in 1964.