Persuasion is the last novel fully completed by Jane Austen. It was published at the end of 1817, six months after her death.
The story concerns Anne Elliot, a young Englishwoman of 27, whose family is moving to lower expenses and get out of debt, at the same time the wars come to an end, putting sailors on shore. They rent their home to an Admiral and his wife. The wife’s brother, Navy Captain Frederick Wentworth, was engaged to Anne in 1806, and now they meet again, both single and unattached, no contact in more than seven years. This sets the scene for many humorous encounters as well as a second, well-considered chance at love and marriage for Anne Elliot in her second "bloom".
The novel was well-received by the small world who could afford books in the early 19th century. Greater fame came later in the century, continued in the 20th century, and through to the 21st century. Over that time, scholarly debate on this novel and all Austen's books proceeded apace, which debate continues as to the best aspects of this novel. One major point made by Virginia Woolf and picked up by Stuart Tave, echoing one of the good conversations in the novel, is that the most famous women characters in fiction were written by men, until Jane Austen came along. Anne Elliot is noteworthy among Jane Austen's heroines for being 27 years old, not 19 or 20 years old in that first bloom of youth, and having a second chance at a happy marriage. As Persuasion is Austen's last completed novel, it is accepted as her most maturely written novel showing a refinement of literary conception indicative of a woman approaching forty years of age. Unlike Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice, the novel Persuasion was not rewritten from earlier drafts of novels which Austen had originally started before 1800. Her literary technique of the use of free indirect discourse in narrative was by 1816 fully developed and in full evidence when this novel was written. The first edition of the novel was co-published with the previously unpublished novel written during her younger years in 1803 and titled Northanger Abbey; later editions of the two were published as separate novels.
The story begins seven years after the broken engagement of Anne Elliot to then Commander Frederick Wentworth. Anne Elliot, then 19 years old, fell in love and accepted a proposal of marriage from the handsome young naval officer. He was clever, confident, ambitious, and employed, but not yet wealthy and with no particular family connections to recommend him. Sir Walter, her father and her older sister Elizabeth maintained that he was no match for an Elliot of Kellynch Hall, the family estate. Lady Russell, acting in place of Anne's late mother, persuaded her to break the engagement, which she saw as imprudent 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 now in financial trouble. Kellynch Hall will be let, and the family will settle in Bath until finances improve. Baronet Sir Walter, the socially-conscious father and daughter Elizabeth look forward to the move. Anne is less sure she will enjoy Bath. Mary is married to Charles Musgrove of nearby Uppercross Hall, the heir to a respected local squire. Anne visits Mary and her family, where she is well-loved. The end of the war puts sailors back on shore, including the tenants of Kellynch Hall, Admiral Croft and his wife Sophia, who is the sister of Frederick Wentworth, now a wealthy naval captain. Frederick visits his sister and meets the Uppercross family, including Anne.
The Musgroves, including Mary, Charles, and Charles's sisters, Henrietta and Louisa, welcome the Crofts and Wentworth. He tells all he is ready to marry. 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, Henrietta turns her affections to him again. Anne still loves Wentworth, so each meeting with him requires preparation for her own strong emotions. She overhears a conversation where Louisa tells 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 fellow officers, Captains Harville and James Benwick, in the coastal town of Lyme Regis. Benwick is in mourning for the death of his fiancee, Captain Harville's sister, and he appreciates Anne's sympathy and understanding. They both admire the Romantic poets. Anne attracts the attention of a gentleman passing through Lyme, who proves to be William Elliot, her cousin and the heir to Kellynch, who broke ties with Sir Walter years earlier. The last morning of the visit, Louisa sustains a serious concussion in a fall brought about by her impetuous behaviour with Wentworth. Anne coolly organizes the others to summon assistance. Wentworth is impressed with Anne, while feeling guilty about his actions with Louisa. He re-examines his feelings about Anne.
Following this accident, Anne joins her father and sister in Bath with Lady Russell, while Louisa and her parents stay at the Harvilles in Lyme. Wentworth visits his older brother in Shropshire. Anne finds that her father and sister are flattered by the attentions of William Elliot, recently widowed, who has reconciled with Sir Walter. Elizabeth assumes that he wishes to court her. Although Anne likes William Elliot and enjoys his manners, she finds his character opaque.
Admiral Croft and his wife arrive in Bath with the news that Louisa is engaged to Captain Benwick. Wentworth comes to Bath, where his jealousy is piqued by seeing Mr Elliot courting Anne. 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. From her she discovers that beneath his charming veneer, Mr Elliot is a cold, calculating opportunist who had led Mrs Smith's late husband into debt. As executor to her husband's will, he 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, displacing him.
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 not 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, and befriends the new couple. Once Anne and Frederick marry, he helps Mrs Smith recover 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.
Table of Contents:
Jane Austen. Persuasion