By Devoney Looser, Arizona State University
When critics describe Jane Austen as a novelist who ignored the wider world around her, they’re ignoring political and geographical details in her novel Persuasion. The pages of Persuasion are absolutely steeped in conversations about men, women, wealth, power, skill, and memory, in the wake of war. When Austen completed Persuasion, the subjects of age and aging, and war, life, and death were clearly on her mind.
The year 1814 is incredibly significant to understanding the novel. In setting Persuasion in that year, Austen places the story in a temporary moment of peacetime that would have been laden with meaning for her first readers. For a short time, in 1814, it had appeared that war with France had ended. Napoleon had seemingly been defeated. He had abdicated. He was exiled to the island of Elba. This is the moment at which the events of the novel Persuasion take place, during a new, celebratory peacetime.
But as anyone then could have told us, that peacetime was short-lived. In February 1815, Napoleon escaped from Elba, and war with Britain and Europe recommenced. Napoleon would then be defeated again at the Battle of Waterloo, in June 1815.
When Austen wrote Persuasion, in 1816, Napoleon had been exiled a second time, this time permanently. Napoleon outlived Austen, dying on St. Helena in 1821.
This article comes directly from content in the video series The Life and Works of Jane Austen. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Peace in Austen’s Persuasion
What all this means is that readers of Persuasion knew that the peace in Austen’s novel’s pages—the triumph, memory, and retrospection, at what seemed like an end to hostilities—was only going to turn out to be temporary. This makes the final chapters of the novel, and its last lines, especially significant.
Earlier, Anne had fallen in love with a military man of no title and no fortune, Captain Frederick Wentworth. He had proposed, and she had wanted to marry him. However, the threat of financial neglect by her father, Sir Walter Elliot, along with her confidante 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.
However, eight years later, after considering other potential romantic partners, Wentworth and Anne find themselves still in love with each other. Obstacles of their own and others’ doing are removed.
Men and Women’s Constancy
When Wentworth overhears Anne describing women’s constancy in relation to men’s, he takes it as a sign of her constancy of feelings for him.
He takes a risk and delivers her a secret letter, telling her his feelings. He declares in that letter, “Dare not say that man forgets sooner than woman, that his love has an earlier death. I have loved none but you. Unjust I may have been, weak and resentful I have been, but never inconstant.”
Women’s and men’s different but equally powerful approach to emotional constancy in love, in the face of domestic stasis, or global action, is a crucial part of the novel’s plot.
He continues, “Tell me not that I am too late, that such precious feelings are gone forever. 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 reads his letter with ‘overpowering happiness’. After they reunite, they mull over what might have been, had circumstances allowed him to discover that she had continued to have feelings for him, years earlier. As they look backward and forward, simultaneously, at personal and national events, they make plans to marry.
Ending of the Novel
The last paragraph gives us a sense of their happy present and hoped-for future. The narrator tells us that, for Anne, ‘the dread of a future war [was] all that could dim her sunshine’. This dread was warranted. Again, readers of Persuasion would know that Napoleon would shortly be escaping from Elba. Readers would be made to imagine that Anne and Frederick were actually about to be dragged back into a dreadful near future of war.
The novel ends with a happy ending for a naval officer and his wife—basking in the glory of their love for each other—but it comes with a caveat. Anne will always pay the ‘tax of quick alarm’. She will grow older in a life of risk, not one of safety, because she will need to live with the dread of war, including her own and her husband’s close proximity to it.
Persuasion is remarkable for its disdain of the morally bankrupt, vain nobility, not even able to hang on to their relatively safer and far more comfortable estates. The novel recommends and celebrates a meritocratic and courageous way for talented, professional men to rise—the Royal Navy—and shows that educated women are capable of serving as these officers’ full partners in this venture of war.
Common Questions about the Themes of War and Peace in Jane Austen’s ‘Persuasion’
In setting Persuasion in 1814, Austen places the story in a temporary moment of peacetime that would have been laden with meaning for her first readers. For a short time, in 1814, it had appeared that war with France had ended. This is the moment at which the events of the novel Persuasion take place, during a new, celebratory peacetime.
When Captain Wentworth had proposed to Anne Elliot, he had been a military man of no title and no fortune. Anne’s father had disapproved of the man, and his threat of financial neglect, along with Anne’s confidante Lady Russell’s sense that Anne ought to say no for the sake of status, economy, and prudence, had led Anne to refuse Wentworth.
Jane Austen‘s Persuasion ends with a happy ending for Anne Elliot and her husband—basking in the glory of their love for each other.