In Jane Austen’s novel Persuasion, we’re told that the heroine Anne Elliot has become ‘faded and thin’, the years having ‘destroyed her youth and bloom’. Such descriptions, along with the book’s seasonal setting, have led critics to refer to Persuasion as Austen’s autumnal novel. Persuasion is absolutely steeped in a commentary about the passage of time and the habits of reflection.
Anne’s Rejection of Wentworth
In Jane Austen’s novel Persuasion, we learn that the heroine, Anne Elliot, was once influenced in her life choices by an act of what the novel calls ‘over-persuasion’.
Almost eight years earlier, Anne had fallen in love with a military man of no title and no fortune, Captain Frederick Wentworth. He was a nobody then, but he proposed, and she wanted to marry him. But Anne was persuaded, by her father, Sir Walter Elliot, and by her confidante and neighbor, Lady Russell, to reject Captain Wentworth. Sir Walter hadn’t said an outright no to the marriage, but he’d indicated that he would do nothing for Anne, by way of dowry. Marrying a military man, and one without prospects for advancement, was thought to be beneath a baronet’s daughter.
This financial neglect by her father, along with Lady Russell’s sense that Anne ought to say no for the sake of status, economy, and prudence, had led Anne to refuse Wentworth, and she hadn’t fallen in love again since.
Meeting Wentworth Again
As the novel opens, Anne is thrust into circumstances where she will be forced to meet Wentworth once again. In the intervening years, he’s gone to war and has returned with a fortune, gained from prize money made by capturing enemy ships. He’s come into wealth, just as her own father has lost it.
In a stroke of coincidence, Anne’s home, Kellynch Hall, is going to be rented out to relatives of Captain Wentworth. His brother-in-law, Admiral Croft, is returning home from the war, with new wealth himself, and looking for a place to live. His wife, Mrs. Croft, is Captain Wentworth’s sister. This means that close relatives of the man whose hand in marriage Anne had been persuaded to reject is now moving into her home. But because Anne is nobody, no one even remembers her former connection to Wentworth. No one notices. No one cares. She suffers in silence.
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The novel works out the relationships that are reestablished in this new set of circumstances. Captain Wentworth is thrown in with attractive, lively, young women, and he lets it be known that he wants a wife. Anne is made to watch all of this because these younger women are the sisters-in-law of her married sister, Mary Musgrove.
Another man comes onto the scene, too—the male heir of Kellynch Hall, cousin William Walter Elliot. He’d once rejected the chance to court the eldest sister, Elizabeth Elliot, and now, to everyone’s surprise, he shows a romantic interest in Anne. Captain Wentworth and Anne are both compelled to observe the objects of their long-ago affection as they court and are being courted by others.
Age and Aging
The passage of nearly eight years is incredibly important to the set-up of the novel.
Anne is 27 years old when the novel opens. She is quite experienced, and at a precipitous life moment; at an age that’s considered risky. The early 30s were then thought to mark the end of a window of likely marriageability and perceived desirability for females. In an era when marriage and childbearing were widely understood as middle-class women’s primary social functions, there was a sadly predictable devaluing of any woman who didn’t become a wife and mother.
Throughout, Persuasion is a novel squarely focused on age and aging. The narrator doesn’t shy away from describing the physical and emotional effects of aging on the three Elliot sisters.
The Three Elliot Sisters
Anne’s older sister, Elizabeth, is attractive and selfish. She’s aware, however, that her powers are waning. She wants to marry a man who is at least a baronet, in the next year. She knows she’s approaching what the novel calls the ‘years of danger’.
Younger sister, Mary Musgrove, is peevish and selfish. She’s the only sister who has married, and who has children. She’s always complaining loudly that she’s ill or ignored. Her loudness attracts some attention but little sympathy. She’s in a position where the expectation is that she’ll care for others, especially her own children and husband. But she continually puts her own needs first. She behaves like a whining, adult baby.
Anne is the one who’s actually noticed the least, who’s the most selfless caregiver, and who draws little attention to herself.
The Issue of Aging in Persuasion
The three sisters’ widower father, Sir Walter Elliot, is obsessed with aging and looks. He is exceptionally vain and is in denial that he’s aging. Yet he criticizes the appearance of others almost as a sport.
The novel is rife, too, with missing and inadequate mothers. None of the three daughters is aging into the adult position. Anne is the only one doing it with any grace at all.
The narrator tells us that Anne herself had once been extremely pretty—a girl with gentleness, modesty, taste, and feeling. She was 19 when Frederick Wentworth proposed to her, almost eight years before. Those eight years have been harder on Anne’s looks than on Frederick’s, although she’s lived a quieter life at home, and he’s aided in naval victories over Napoleon.
Common Questions about the Passage of Time in Jane Austen’s Persuasion
The threat of financial neglect by her father, along with her confidante and neighbor Lady Russell’s sense that she ought to say no for the sake of status, economy, and prudence, led Anne to refuse Wentworth’s proposal in Jane Austen‘s Persuasion.
The early 30s were thought to mark the end of a window of likely marriageability and perceived desirability for females. In an era when marriage and childbearing were widely understood as middle-class women’s primary social functions, there was a sadly predictable devaluing of any woman who didn’t become a wife and mother.
In Jane Austen‘s Persuasion, Sir Walter Elliot is obsessed with aging and looks. He is exceptionally vain and is in denial that he’s aging. Yet he criticizes the appearance of others almost as a sport.