Persuasion is Jane Austen‘s last completed novel, published posthumously. She began it soon after she had finished Emma and completed it in August 1816. Persuasion was published in December 1817, but is dated 1818. The author died earlier in 1817.
As the Napoleonic Wars come to an end in 1814, Admirals and Captains of the Royal Navy are put ashore, their work done. Anne Elliot meets Captain Frederick Wentworth after seven years, by the chance of his sister and brother-in-law renting her father’s estate, while she stays for a few months with her married sister, living nearby. They fell in love the first time, but she broke off the engagement.
Besides the theme of persuasion, the novel evokes other topics, with which Austen was familiar: the Royal Navy, in which two of Jane Austen’s brothers rose to the rank of admiral; and the superficial social life of Bath. It is portrayed extensively and serves as a setting for the second half of Persuasion. In many respects, Persuasion marks a break with Austen’s previous works, both in the more biting, even irritable satire directed at some of the novel’s characters and in the regretful, resigned outlook of its otherwise admirable heroine, Anne Elliot, in the first part of the story. Against this is set the energy and appeal of the Royal Navy, which symbolises for Anne and the reader the possibility of a more outgoing, engaged, and fulfilling life, and it is this worldview which triumphs for the most part at the end of the novel.
Persuasion is linked to Northanger Abbey not only by the fact that the two books were originally bound up in one volume and published together, but also because both stories are set partly in Bath, a fashionable city with which Austen was well acquainted, having lived there from 1801 to 1805.
Introduction to the plot
Over seven years before the novel opens, Anne Elliot, then a lovely, thoughtful, warm-hearted 19-year-old, accepted a proposal of marriage from the handsome young naval officer Frederick Wentworth. He was clever, confident, and ambitious, but poor and with no particular family connections to recommend him. Sir Walter, Anne’s vain father and her equally self-involved older sister Elizabeth were dissatisfied with her choice, maintaining that he was no match for an Elliot of Kellynch Hall, the family estate. Her older friend and mentor, Lady Russell, acting in place of Anne’s late mother, persuaded her to break the engagement, for she, too, felt it was an imprudent match for one so young. They are the only ones who know about this short engagement, as younger sister Mary was away at school.
The Elliot family is in financial trouble, needing to reduce expenses. The family estate, Kellynch Hall will be let, and the family will settle in Bath until finances improve. Baronet Sir Walter, the vain, socially-conscious father and his eldest daughter Elizabeth look forward to the move. Second daughter Anne Elliot is less sure she will enjoy Bath, so she plans visits before joining her father and sister. Anne takes after her late mother, while Elizabeth takes after her father. The youngest sister Mary is married to Charles Musgrove of nearby Uppercross Hall, the heir to a respected local squire. Anne finishes tasks of moving out, and then visits Mary and her family; Anne is well-loved by her sister’s children and in-laws. During that visit, Wentworth reenters Anne’s life. Kellynch’s tenants are Wentworth’s sister, Sophia, and her husband, the recently retired Admiral Croft. Frederick visits his sister and soon meets the Uppercross family, including Anne.
The Musgroves, including Mary, Charles, and Charles’s sisters, Henrietta and Louisa, are happy to welcome the Crofts and Wentworth. He is cautious with Anne, whom he says he almost does not recognize, and friendly and attentive with the Musgrove girls, who both respond in kind. Henrietta is engaged to her clergyman cousin Charles Hayter, who is away for the first few days that Wentworth joins their social circle. Both the Crofts and Musgroves enjoy speculating about which sister Wentworth might marry. Once Hayter returns, Charles Musgrove persuades his sister to talk with him again, leaving the field to Louisa. Anne still loves Wentworth, so each meeting with him requires preparation for her own strong emotions. She overhears a conversation where Louisa mentions to Wentworth that Charles first proposed to Anne, who turned him down. This is startling news to him.
Anne and the young adults of the Uppercross family accompany Captain Wentworth on a visit to two of his brother officers, Captain Harville, in the coastal town of Lyme Regis and Captain James Benwick. Benwick is in mourning for the death of his fiancée, Captain Harville’s sister, and he appreciates Anne’s sympathy and understanding. He admires the Romantic poets, whom Anne reads also. The visit to Lyme agrees with Anne, who shows the life and sparkle that Captain Wentworth remembered. She attracts the attention of a gentleman passing through Lyme, the heir to the Elliot estate, William Elliot, who broke ties with Sir Walter many years earlier. At first sight, he does not know who she is. The last morning of the visit, Louisa Musgrove sustains a serious concussion in a fall brought about by her impetuous behaviour with Wentworth. Anne coolly administers first aid and summons assistance. Wentworth is impressed with Anne, while feeling guilty about his actions with Louisa. He re-examines his feelings about Anne.
Following this sad accident, Anne travels to Bath with Lady Russell to join her father and sister, while Louisa, and her parents, stay in Lyme to recover her health at the Harvilles. Wentworth visits his older brother in Shropshire. In Bath, Anne finds that her father and sister adapt to their new home. They are flattered by the attentions of William Elliot, recently widowed, who has now reconciled with Sir Walter. Elizabeth assumes that he wishes to court her while Lady Russell more correctly suspects that he admires Anne. Although Anne likes William Elliot and enjoys his company, she finds his character disturbingly opaque.
Admiral Croft and his wife arrive in Bath, and soon afterward comes the news that Louisa Musgrove is engaged to Captain Benwick. Wentworth comes to Bath, where he is not pleased to see Mr Elliot courting Anne, which Anne notices. He and Anne renew their acquaintance. Anne visits an old school friend, Mrs Smith, who is now a widow living in Bath in straitened circumstances. Through her she discovers that behind his charming veneer, Mr Elliot is a cold, calculating opportunist who had led Mrs Smith’s late husband into crippling debt, and as executor to her husband’s will, takes no actions to improve her situation. Although Mrs Smith believes that he is genuinely attracted to Anne, she feels that his first aim is preventing Mrs Clay from marrying Sir Walter. A new marriage might mean a new son, and the end of Mr Elliott’s inheritance. Anne is shocked and dismayed by this news.
The Musgroves visit Bath to purchase wedding clothes for Louisa and Henrietta, both soon to marry. Captains Wentworth and Harville encounter them and Anne at the Musgroves’ hotel in Bath, where Wentworth overhears Anne and Harville conversing about the relative faithfulness of men and women in love. Deeply moved by what Anne has to say about women never giving up their feelings of love even when all hope is lost, Wentworth writes her a note declaring his feelings for her. Outside the hotel, Anne and Wentworth reconcile, affirm their love for each other, and renew their engagement. William Elliot leaves Bath with Mrs Clay, whose charming ways may yet attract him. Lady Russell admits she was wrong about Wentworth; she and Anne remain friends. Once Anne and Frederick marry, he helps Mrs Smith recover some of her lost assets. Anne settles into life as the wife of a Navy captain, he who is to be called away when his country needs him.
Sir Walter Elliot, Bt. — A vain, self-satisfied baronet, Sir Walter’s extravagance since the death of his prudent wife 13 years before has put his family in financial straits. These are severe enough to force him to lease his estate, Kellynch Hall, to Admiral Croft and take a more economical residence in Bath. Despite being strongly impressed by wealth and status he allows the insinuating Mrs Clay, who is beneath him in social standing, in his household as a companion to his eldest daughter.
Elizabeth Elliot — The eldest and most beautiful daughter of Sir Walter encourages her father’s imprudent spending and extravagance. She and her father regard Anne as inconsequential. Elizabeth wants to marry, and has run the Elliot household since her mother died a dozen years earlier.
Anne Elliot — The second daughter of Sir Walter is intelligent, accomplished and attractive, and she is unmarried at 27, having broken off her engagement to Wentworth over seven years earlier. She fell in love with Captain Wentworth but was persuaded by her mentor, Lady Russell, to reject his proposal because of his poverty and uncertain future and her youth. Anne rejects a proposal a few years later, knowing she loves Wentworth.
Mary Musgrove — The youngest daughter of Sir Walter, married to Charles Musgrove, is attention-seeking, always looking for ways she might have been slighted or not given her full due, and often claims illness when she is upset. She opposes sister-in-law Henrietta’s interest in marrying Charles Hayter, who Mary feels is beneath them.
Charles Musgrove — Husband of Mary and heir to the Musgrove estate. He first proposed to Anne, who said no. He married Mary about five years before the story opens, and they have two sons. He is a cheerful man, who loves hunting, and easily endures his wife’s faults.
Lady Russell — A friend of the Elliots, particularly Anne, of whom she is the godmother. She is instrumental in Sir Walter’s decision to leave Kellynch Hall and avoid financial crisis. Years earlier, she persuaded Anne to turn down Captain Wentworth’s proposal of marriage. She was the intimate friend of the mother, and has watched over the three sisters since their mother died. She values social rank and finds in Anne the daughter most like her late friend.
Mrs Clay — A poor widow with children, daughter of Sir Walter’s lawyer, and companion of Elizabeth Elliot. She aims to flatter Sir Walter into marriage, while her oblivious friend looks on.
Captain Frederick Wentworth — A naval officer who was briefly engaged to Anne some years ago. At the time, he had no fortune and uncertain prospects, but owing to his achievements in the Napoleonic Wars, he advanced in rank and in fortunes. He is one of two brothers of Sophia Croft. He gained his step to post Captain, and gained wealth amounting to about £25,000 from prize money awarded for capturing enemy vessels. He is an eminently eligible bachelor.
Admiral Croft — Good-natured, plainspoken tenant at Kellynch Hall and brother-in-law of Captain Wentworth. In his naval career, he was a captain when he married, present at the major battle of Trafalgar in 1805, then assigned in the east Indies, and holds the rank of rear admiral of the white.
Sophia Croft — Sister of Captain Wentworth and wife of Admiral Croft for the last 15 years. She is 38 years old. She offers Anne an example of a strong-minded woman who has married for love instead of money and who has a good life married to a Navy man.
Louisa Musgrove — Second sister of Charles Musgrove, Louisa, aged about 19, is a high-spirited young lady who has returned with her sister from school. She likes Captain Wentworth and seeks his attention. She is ultimately engaged to Captain Benwick, after recovering from her serious fall. Her brother Charles notices that she is less lively after suffering the concussion.
Henrietta Musgrove — Eldest sister of Charles Musgrove. Henrietta, aged about 20, is informally engaged to her cousin, Charles Hayter, but is nevertheless tempted by the more dashing Captain Wentworth. Once he returns home, she again connects with Hayter.
Captain Harville — A friend of Captain Wentworth. Wounded two years previously, he is slightly lame. Wentworth had not seen his friend since the time of that injury. Harville and his family are settled in nearby Lyme for the winter.
Captain James Benwick — A friend of Captains Harville and Wentworth. Benwick had been engaged to marry Captain Harville’s sister Fanny, but she died while Benwick was at sea. He gained prize money as a lieutenant and not long after was promoted to commander (thus called Captain). Benwick’s enjoyment of reading gives him a connection with Anne, as does her willingness to listen to him in his time of deep sadness. He might have enjoyed more time with her, before she returned to Lady Russell, but that did not occur. Benwick was with Louisa Musgrove the whole time of her recovery, at the end of which, they become engaged to marry.
Mr William Elliot — A distant relation (“great grandson of the second Sir Walter” when it is not stated from which Sir Walter the present one descends) and the heir presumptive of Sir Walter, Mr Elliot became estranged from the family when he wed a woman of lower social rank for her fortune and actively insulted Sir Walter. Sir Walter and Elizabeth had hoped William would marry Elizabeth Elliot. He is a widower, and now has interest in the social value of the title that he will someday inherit. He mends the rupture to keep an eye on the ambitious Mrs Clay. If Sir Walter married her, William’s inheritance would be endangered. When Mr Elliot sees Anne by chance, and then learns she is Sir Walter’s daughter, his interest is piqued: if he could marry Anne his title and inheritance likely would be secured because her father would less inclined to disinherit his daughter. Rumors circulate in Bath that Anne and he are attached.
Mrs Smith — A friend of Anne Elliot who lives in Bath. Mrs Smith is a widow who suffers ill health and financial difficulties. She keeps abreast of the doings of Bath society through news she gets from her nurse, Rooke, who tends the wife of a friend of William Elliot’s. Her financial problems could have been straightened out with assistance from William Elliot, her husband’s friend and executor of his will, but Elliot would not exert himself, leaving her much impoverished. Wentworth eventually acts on her behalf.
Lady Dalrymple — A viscountess, cousin to Sir Walter. She occupies an exalted position in society by virtue of wealth and rank. Sir Walter and Elizabeth are eager to be seen at Bath in the company of this great relation.