Reading Jane Austen: Part Three



Persuasion is Austen’s sixth completed novel – though given she lacked time to pursue all her usual meticulous revisions some might prefer to call it her sixth (almost) completed novel.

According to her sister Cassandra, she began writing it on 8 August 1815 and wrote ‘Finis’ at the end of the manuscript on 18 July 1816. But according to James Edward Austen Leigh’s 1871 A Memoir of Jane Austen his aunt thought the original ending ‘tame and flat’ and rewrote Chapter Ten of Volume 2, added Chapter Eleven and retained the original Chapter Eleven as Chapter Twelve (or Chapters Twenty Two, Twenty Three and Twenty Four of the 1965 Penguin edition edited by D W Harding, which is the text used in this discussion). Given that Leigh tells us that this final version was completed on 6 August 1816, it suggests that she completed this radical (and brilliant) revision within some twenty days.

Whatever one’s view of the actual dates and state of completion the timescale of writing the novel as we have it today is impressively rapid, and possibly reflective of her declining health. She famously wrote to her niece Fanny Knight (on 13 March 1817) that

‘I have a something ready for Publication, which may perhaps appear about a twelvemonth hence.’

The slightly hesitant tone – ‘a something’, ‘may perhaps’ and ‘about a twelvemonth’ – might suggest to some that she was contemplating further revisions. But some four months later – on 18 July 1817 – she was dead, and the point remains moot.

What is clear, however, is that Persuasion was an original idea and not a reworking of an earlier text. It is, then, in inception and execution, the product of Austen the mature novelist exercising her skill and experience to revisit and to build on themes, visions and concerns expressed in her earlier works – and perhaps becoming somewhat more subversive and unforgiving in the process.

The novel’s chronology of events (from summer 1814 to March 1815) aligns closely with the historical reality of the time. The Peace of Paris was signed in May 1814, as referred to in Chapter Three

‘This peace will be turning all our rich Naval Officers ashore’

The current reference would certainly not have been lost on her contemporary audience, for whom it would underpin the social realism and sense of change in the novel. The chronology of the various events Austen describes in the narrative are carefully structured around this initial exactitude: Sir Walter decamps to Bath in mid-September, when Anne goes to Uppercross Cottage; the Crofts move into Kellynch at Michaelmas (29 September);  Wentworth arrives at Uppercross in October, and the visit to Lyme Regis to meet the Harvilles and James Benwick follows in November, where Anne’s face is admired by the then unknown Mr Elliot and for Louisa falls at The Cobb. These events end Volume One in the first edition of the novel (or the end of Chapter Twelve in the 1965 Penguin edition) in a carefully structured climax.

In Volume Two (Chapter Thirteen onwards) Anne goes to stay with Lady Russell and meets the Crofts at Kellynch; there is regular news about Louisa’s health and stay at Lyme until Christmas passes and Lady Russell and Anne go to Bath in January 1815; Anne renews her acquaintance with her former schoolfriend Mrs Smith and makes regular visits over the next few weeks; February brings further news of events in a letter from Mary (dated 1 February) which tells Anne that the Crofts will be arriving in Bath for the Admiral’s health at the beginning of February, and in an addendum that Louisa is now engaged to James Benwick; Anne meets the Admiral in Bath in mid-February and learns that Wentworth is not all upset at the news of the engagement, and is a free agent, underlined by Admiral Croft’s question ‘Do you not think, Miss Elliot, we had better try to get him to Bath?’; and Anne meets him ‘the very next time (she) walked out’ , at Molland’s, where she leaves with Mr Elliot (at his insistence) as Wentworth looks on and overhears a conversation which strongly suggests that the two cousins will soon announce their engagement; a few more days pass until their next meeting at the concert party where Wentworth leaves abruptly, apparently jealous; the next day Anne learns the truth about Mr Elliot – and Mrs Clay – from Mrs Smith; the day after this revelation Anne visits with the Musgroves in their hotel and finds Wentworth there with Harville – and the rapprochement is finally achieved, confirmed in a long walk and conversation through the town; that same evening Wentworth makes his formal request to Sir Walter for Anne’s hand; and the novel ends with a functional summary of the various attitudes and actions of the other significant characters concerning the marriage (which we do not see nor get a date for). Austen carefully notes in the final paragraph of the novel, however, that for Anne

‘the dread of a future war (was) all that could dim her sunshine’

which would again remind her contemporary readers that Napoleon escaped from Elba and returned to Paris in March 1815.

This carefully structured and increasingly hurried timeline of events adds to the reader’s quickening emotional involvement. Relatively recent publications – such as Professor E J Clery’s 2017 book  Jane Austen: The Banker’s Sister and Sheila Johnson Kindred’s 2009 The Influence of Naval Captain Charles Austen’s North American Experiences on Persuasion and Mansfield Park (published in the June issue (No.31) of The Jane Austen Journal)- argue strongly that any emotional involvement might not have been limited to the reader, suggesting possible strong autobiographical elements in aspects of the book. Professor Clery points out that for much of the time Austen was writing the novel her wider family circumstances were under great pressure alongside her own declining health. Her brother Henry fell seriously ill and was near to death in 1815, and Jane helped nurse him back to health before the bank of which he was a partner failed in the November, essentially bankrupting him in addition to causing heavy financial losses for her other brothers Edward and James. The financial and business support from which she had benefitted was severely damaged. As Professor Clery points out, it is not, perhaps, too surprising that Persuasion offers us a portrait of an extravagant family on the brink of ruin and characters with various health issues.

Her brother Charles inadvertently added to this sense of collapse and uncertainty when in February 1816, while commanding HMS Phoenix, his ship ran aground in a storm off the Greek coast. Although safe he was court-martialled the following April, which potentially threatened his career and doubtless worried the whole family. In the event he was completely absolved of any blame and his career prospered until some thirty years later, in November 1846, he reached flag rank and was advanced to Rear-Admiral of the Blue. His older brother Francis was at that time the Vice-Admiral and Commander-in-Chief of the North American and West Indies Station. Knighted in 1860, Sir Francis was promoted to Admiral of the Fleet in 1863. Clearly, her brothers either knowingly or unknowingly provided background material for aspects of William Price’s experiences in the Navy in Mansfield Park and for the depictions of the various Naval Officers in Persuasion.  

Further, Austen greatly liked and admired Charles Austen’s wife, Fanny, for the way she desired to be with her husband whatever the dangers of his postings – clearly mirrored in Mrs Croft. And further again, Austen describes Wentworth’s career advancement and steady progression from commanding sloops to frigates in an exact copy of Charles Austen’s promotional path.

(All of which information, of course, however fascinating and enriching, has no relevance when considering the qualities of or reaching a critical assessment or interpretation of Austen’s text.)

So how do we begin to engage with it? A useful first step may be to consider that it was published after she died – and that her brother Henry chose the title under which it was published, the appropriateness of which is the subject of much debate among Austen scholars.


Why might this be significant? It is important to recognise that it is not a question of Henry’s choice of title being somehow wrong. Titles matter because they are the text’s first semantic system that the reader encounters; and as such, they have several obvious functions, such as: predicting content; catching the reader’s interest; reflecting the tone and slant of a piece of writing; and so on. In transactional writing the impact of these functions is immediate. It is apparent before looking at the text that Erich Fromm’s Greatness and Limitations of Freud’s Thought is an analytic assessment by a third party of Freud’s psychological insights; whereas Freud’s Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis is exposition rather than analytic assessment of his own work.

The debate around Henry’s choice of title ignoring Austen’s working title (which, according to Deidre Le Faye’s 1989 Jane Austen: A Family Record was The Elliots) is because of the nature of literary titles. Literary titles are somewhat different, as Anne Ferry explores in her 1996 work The Title to the Poem, where she suggests that the reader of a literary text cannot help but be affected by the title in some way when referring to the work as a whole. If Ferry is correct then it follows that a literary title is not neutral. And if so, then it can be interrogated hermeneutically, which is to say that it can carry a force of meaning that helps shape the reader’s interpretation of the text at each moment in the process of reading. Tony Tanner, in his comments on the novel (In Between: Persuasion) published in Jane Austen, his 1986 collection of essays on her novels, illustrates this point with his usual precision:

Persuasion. Not ‘Persuasion and …’ – Resistance, Refusal, Rebellion, for instance. Just Persuasion. In previous titles using abstract nouns Jane Austen had deployed pairs. This time the debate, the struggle, the contestation, the contrarieties and ambiguities are all in the one word. As they are all in, or concentrated on, the one girl. Anne Elliot is the loneliest of Jane Austen’s heroines. Persuaded by others, she has to repersuade herself.

That is, Henry’s choice of title has the significant effect of narrowing the reader’s focus, concentrating on the heroine and whether or not she will be offered and accept a second chance of rekindled love. A corollary of this is the implication that the novel is primarily concerned with somehow remedying the situation created after her initial refusal some years before. If that is the case, then the reader’s interpretation of Persuasion in all its events and characters is shaped through the filter of how they affect Anne and her story, subordinating whatever autonomy and significance events and characters might have in their own right – ‘they are all in, or concentrated on, the one girl’ (though Anne is twenty-seven years old) and reinforcing the sense that the principal example of persuasion the novel is exploring relates to Anne’s refusal  – which because she regrets it is to be seen as some kind of mistake. Because of this many readers (and, seemingly, most film and television producers) see the individual love story between Anne and the newly returned and prosperous Captain Wentworth as the central if not overpowering concern of the novel. Claire Tomalin encapsulates this view in her 1997 biography – Jane Austen: A Life – by suggesting that the book was Austen’s

“present to herself … to all women who had lost their chance in life and would never enjoy a second spring.”

Tanner’s overall comment, then, might seem to argue against Henry’s choice of title, which narrows the reader’s attention onto the emotional intensity and complexity of the potential rescue of a once lost love. But it is not quite so fixed as this. He reminds us that the elements of the novel which are being squeezed by this focus are

“the debate, the struggle, the contestation, the contrarieties and ambiguities”

that make up its narrative drive.

In other words, Tanner recognises that Austen the novelist is equally (perhaps primarily) interested in using the potential of this romantic situation to explore the hidden tangles of communication. Language is the means by and through which characters in the novel come to reach their opinions, convictions and conclusions – and language controls their interactions with and understanding of each other. Austen, as usual, is concerned with how we use language and how language uses us. It is one of the characteristics of the novel as form and one of the foundations of her novels – as already noted in the opening pages of Sense and Sensibility, where the truth of how important persuasion as a defining concept of human interaction is to Austen is demonstrated in chilling detail. Seen from this perspective, Persuasion is most certainly a valid title despite the hesitations Tanner identifies.

Professor Dame Gillian Beer in her 1998 Introduction to the Penguin Classics edition of the novel points out that it is clear that Austen had profound concerns about how society manipulated the different forms of persuasion particularly as they related to the pressures and choices facing young women. Indeed, Beer uses the phrase ‘fraught with moral dangers’ to capture those concerns. She too remarks upon Austen’s awareness of the fundamental importance of persuasion in the process of communication – and comments that in the novel

‘Jane Austen gradually draws out the implications of discriminating ‘just’ and ‘unjust’ persuasion.’


the novel’s entire brooding on the power pressures, the seductions, and also the new pathways opened by persuasion

and by so doing suggests that Henry’s choice of title does not necessarily narrow the range of issues the novel raises.

Indeed, one of the possible ironies or ambiguities of the novel is that Anne’s initial persuadability (resulting in her decision not to marry Wentworth, however much she might regret it some years later) might well have been to his professional advantage. Austen makes it clear in the dinner scene at Uppercross (in Chapter Eight) – tellingly, when the reader first encounters him in person – that the younger Anne’s refusal of his offer of marriage might actually have been one of the engines (if not the engine) of his later success. She has Wentworth say

‘It was a great object with me, at that time, to be at sea, – a very great object. I wanted to be doing something.’

and so creates the ambiguity around whether or not had Anne not been persuaded to refuse him then the responsibility of having a wife (and possibly children) might have tempered his willingness to take those risks which brought him promotion – and prize money. Such deliberately unresolved subtleties are part not only of this novel but comprise much of the particular appeal and skill of all Austen’s novels.

This particular ambiguity was also central to the comments made by Monica Fairview (the author of several Regency-style romances around the character of Darcy) in her 2018 online discussion What’s in a name? Is Persuasion the right title? She notes that the words ‘persuasion’ and ‘persuade’ occur ‘approximately 225 times’ in Persuasion, which, she suggests

reveals that Henry Austen – who did not have access to searchable e-texts – was perfectly justified in choosing it.’

If her figures are correct they would strongly support the view that Henry had indeed identified a powerful unifying theme, even given the novel’s different meanings and instances of ‘persuasion’ – a complexity that she acknowledges, given that Anne is by no means the only character who encounters them. She eventually, however, supports Tanner’s hesitations concerning the reductive nature of the concentration of focus on Anne by claiming the title can be seen as distorting the work:

by calling the novel ‘Persuasion’, Henry Austen placed too much emphasis on the beginning of the novel – the ‘mistake’ – rather than on the understanding reached by both characters

and stressing how it undermines both the narrative balance of the relationship between the two erstwhile lovers and the underlying narrative structure of the novel which creates the emotional intensity and involvement for the reader:

The importance of setting the narrative in the present (eight years later) is that it is retrospective, where Anne’s initial ‘persuasion’ can be re-examined under different circumstances

(Fairview’s article can be found at

The consequence for some readers of using Persuasion as the title is the difficulty they face regarding the inevitable tension between the foregrounding of Anne’s narrative while at the same time subordinating other elements in the novel that have functions outside that narrative even as they contribute to it. Because Anne’s narrative is so emotionally fascinating and empathetic – as per Claire Tomalin’s description of its function if not its purpose – it is all too easy to float along on the exhilaration of the advancing drama of possible reconciliation and only peripherally notice how Austen has arranged the narrative structure.


How might this be relevant? Austen is wonderfully consistent in the way she opens her novels – the opening chapter (and often the opening paragraph) usually offers a guide to what themes and characters are going to be central to this novel. All of them in their different ways and tones introduce us to a particular family and situation, and by the end of the first chapter generally make it possible to identify the intended heroine. As just said, sometimes the identification is in the opening paragraph, or even the opening sentence – as in some of the following examples:

No one who had ever seen Catherine Morland in her infancy would have supposed her born to be an heroine. Her situation in life, the character of her father and mother, her own person and disposition, were all equally against her. Her father was a clergyman, without being neglected, or poor, and a very respectable man, though his name was Richard – and he had never been handsome. He had a considerable independence besides two good livings – and he was not in the least addicted to locking up his daughters. Her mother was a woman of useful plain sense, with a good temper, and, what is more remarkable, with a good constitution. She had three sons before Catherine was born; and instead of dying in bringing the latter into the world, as anybody might expect, she still lived on – lived to have six children more – to see them growing up around her, and to enjoy excellent health herself.

(Northanger Abbey)

The family of Dashwood had long been settled in Sussex. Their estate was large, and their residence was at Norland Park, in the centre of their property, where, for many generations, they had lived in so respectable a manner as to engage the general good opinion of their surrounding acquaintance. The late owner of this estate was a single man, who lived to a very advanced age, and who for many years of his life, had a constant companion and housekeeper in his sister. But her death, which happened ten years before his own, produced a great alteration in his home; for to supply her loss, he invited and received into his house the family of his nephew Mr. Henry Dashwood, the legal inheritor of the Norland estate, and the person to whom he intended to bequeath it. In the society of his nephew and niece, and their children, the old Gentleman’s days were comfortably spent. His attachment to them all increased. The constant attention of Mr. and Mrs. Henry Dashwood to his wishes, which proceeded not merely from interest, but from goodness of heart, gave him every degree of solid comfort which his age could receive; and the cheerfulness of the children added a relish to his existence.

(Sense and Sensibility)

IT is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.

However little known the feelings or views of such a man may be on his first entering a neighbourhood, this truth is so well fixed in the minds of the surrounding families, that he is considered as the rightful property of some one or other of their daughters.

‘My dear Mr. Bennet,’ said his lady to him one day, ‘have you hard that Netherfield Park is let at last?’

(Pride and Prejudice)

About thirty years ago Miss Maria Ward, of Huntingdon, with only seven thousand pounds, had the good luck to captivate Sir Thomas Bertram, of Mansfield Park, in the county of Northampton, and to be thereby raised to the rank of a baronet’s lady, with all the comforts and consequences of a handsome house and large income. All Huntingdon exclaimed on the greatness of the match, and her uncle, the lawyer, himself, allowed her to be at least three thousand pounds short of any equitable claim to it. She had two sisters to be benefited by her elevation; and such of their acquaintance as thought Miss Ward and Miss Frances quite as handsome as Miss Maria, did not scruple to predict their marrying with almost equal advantage. But there certainly are not so many men of large fortune in the world as there are pretty women to deserve them. Miss Ward, at the end of half a dozen years, found herself obliged to be attached to the Rev. Mr. Norris, a friend of her brother-in-law, with scarcely any private fortune, and Miss Frances fared yet worse. Miss Ward’s match, indeed, when it came to the point, was not contemptible: Sir Thomas being happily able to give his friend an income in the living of Mansfield; and Mr. and Mrs. Norris began their career of conjugal felicity with very little less than a thousand a year. But Miss Frances married, in the common phrase, to disoblige her family, and by fixing on a lieutenant of marines, without education, fortune, or connections, did it very thoroughly. She could hardly have made a more untoward choice. Sir Thomas Bertram had interest, which, from principle as well as pride-from a general wish of doing right, and a desire of seeing all that were connected with him in situations of respectability, he would have been glad to exert for the advantage of Lady Bertram’s sister; but her husband’s profession was such as no interest could reach; and before he had time to devise any other method of assisting them, an absolute breach between the sisters had taken place. It was the natural result of the conduct of each party, and such as a very imprudent marriage almost always produces. To save herself from useless remonstrance, Mrs. Price never wrote to her family on the subject till actually married. Lady Bertram, who was a woman of very tranquil feelings, and a temper remarkably easy and indolent, would have contented herself with merely giving up her sister, and thinking no more of the matter; but Mrs. Norris had a spirit of activity, which could not be satisfied till she had written a long and angry letter to Fanny, to point out the folly of her conduct, and threaten her with all its possible ill consequences. Mrs. Price, in her turn, was injured and angry; and an answer, which comprehended each sister in its bitterness, and bestowed such very disrespectful reflections on the pride of Sir Thomas as Mrs. Norris could not possibly keep to herself, put an end to all intercourse between them for a considerable period.

(Mansfield Park)

Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition, seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence; and had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her.

She was the youngest of the two daughters of a most affectionate, indulgent father, and had, in consequence of her sister’s marriage, been mistress of his house from a very early period. Her mother had died too long ago for her to have more than an indistinct remembrance of her caresses, and her place had been supplied by an excellent woman as governess, who had fallen little short of a mother in affection.


There is certainly a gradation of tone across these openings that perhaps reflects Austen’s growing maturity and confidence in her writing: from the playful comic exaggeration of Northanger Abbey meant to twit the popular Gothic romances; through the neutral history of the Dashwood family in Sense and Sensibility that makes the treachery of John Dashwood both more shocking and yet natural; the sardonic overblown generalisation of Pride and Prejudice, which captures the sense of the society she depicts; to the more detailed and pointed differences of character and situation in Mansfield Park, and its examination of the dilution of important cohesive social values; ending with the psychological precision of Emma, delivered with a slightly indulgent authorial voice that mirrors the indulgence that has shaped her character yet offers a sympathetic and affirmative note of change for the better.

The opening of Persuasion is immediately and markedly different:

Sir Walter Elliot, of Kellynch-hall, in Somersetshire, was a man who, for his own amusement, never took up any book but the Baronetage; there he found occupation for an idle hour, and consolation in a distressed one; there his faculties were roused into admiration and respect, by contemplating the limited remnant of the earliest patents; there any unwelcome sensations, arising from domestic affairs, changed naturally into pity and contempt, as he turned over the almost endless creations of the last century – and there, if every other leaf were powerless, he could read his own history with an interest which never failed – this was the page at which the favourite volume always opened:


It is essentially impossible to recognise or anticipate any thematic interest here that relates to the title; rather, it is a brilliant and powerful depiction of the disturbing narcissism of someone whose personality and attitude reflects a very damaged and damaging presence, self-obsessed and dismissive of others. It might be possible to argue that it is a portrait of someone who is ‘persuaded’ of his own importance, but Austen’s carefully chosen vocabulary and tone surely undercut such a reading. The tone of this authorial voice is unrelentingly harsh and without any softening whatsoever, as compared with the underlying comic grotesqueries of her other pompous narcissists.

The opening paragraph is followed by another detailed family history in keeping with the earlier texts, but as with the tone, presented in a radically different way:

Walter Elliot, born March 1, 1760, married, July 15, 1784, Elizabeth, daughter of James Stevenson, Esq. of South Park, in the county of Gloucester; by which lady (who died in 1800) he has issue Elizabeth, born June 1, 1785; Anne, born August 9, 1787; a still-born son, Nov 5, 1789; Mary, born Nov 20, 1791.

This device of using a (supposedly) direct quotation from the Baronetage brilliantly distances the information from the authorial voice, lending an immediately impersonal tone that suits and underlines Sir Walter’s emotional distance from his children. In the next paragraph Austen both reinforces the fact that the information is provided by an uninvolved third party:

Precisely such had the paragraph originally stood from the printer’s hands

and offers a specific example of Sir Walter’s stance towards the information in his own hand:

but Sir Walter had improved it by adding, for the information of himself and his family, these words, after the date of Mary’s birth – ‘married, Dec. 16, 1810, Charles, son and heir of Charles Musgrove, Esq. of Uppercross, in the county of Somerset,’ – and by inserting most accurately the day of the month on which he had lost his wife.

noticeable for its exact reproduction of the style and tone of the printed third-party description. This sustained negative portrait of Sir Walter, unleavened by any humour or sympathy and utterly reflected in Austen’s choice of language and manner of establishing background family information, immediately announces that this book is going to be unlike her earlier work even though it follows her default method of opening her novels with a brief description of family circumstance and history. It is, perhaps, the strongest argument against Henry’s choice of title and in favour of The Elliots – which itself would be an important shift in her intention, being a clear statement of a primary focus on the family and the dynamics of family relationships rather than on the individual adventures of a heroine. Though none of this explains the nature and rationale of Austen’s private choice of having Mary and Charles marry on her own thirty-fifth birthday!


Some readers might argue that in Chapter Four Austen provides a more typical opening chapter that guides the reader towards the issues and heroine that explain the title Persuasion. Here, with tremendous economy, she summarises the history of Anne’s earlier relationship with Wentworth in some six paragraphs over two pages of text, offering enough material that would have produced a novel some years earlier. The tone and language of the opening paragraph of this chapter has none of the darkly judgemental starkness of Chapter One, but captures something of the rapturous inevitability of first love:

HE was not Mr Wentworth, the former curate of Monkford, however suspicious appearances may be, but a captain Frederick Wentworth, his brother, who being made commander in consequence of the action off St Domingo, and not immediately employed, had come into Somersetshire, in the summer of 1806; and having no parent living, found a home for half a year, at Monkford. He was, at that time, a remarkably fine young man, with a great deal of intelligence, spirit and brilliancy; and Anne an extremely pretty girl, with gentleness, modesty, taste, and feeling. – Half the sum of attraction, on either side, might have been enough, for he had nothing to do, and she had hardly any body to love; but the encounter of such lavish recommendations could not fail. They were gradually acquainted, and when acquainted, rapidly and deeply in love. It would be difficult to say which had seen highest perfection in the other, or which had been the happiest; she, in receiving his declarations and proposals, or he in having them accepted.

It is clear that, with a little rewriting, this could easily form an opening paragraph for an opening chapter that developed the centrality and justified the notion of persuasion as a title. Austen certainly increases this sense of the power of persuasion – negatively, in this instance – over the next few paragraphs as she shows how quickly such exuberant certainty can be dissipated:

A short period of exquisite felicity followed, and but a short one. – Troubles soon arose. Sir Walter, on being applied to, without actually withholding his consent, or saying it should never be, gave it all the negative of great astonishment, great coldness, great silence, and a professed resolution of doing nothing for his daughter. He thought it a very degrading alliance; and Lady Russell, though with more tempered and pardonable pride, received it as a most unfortunate one.

The third paragraph describes very precisely how and why Lady Russell sets out to persuade Anne to refuse Wentworth:

Anne Elliot, with all her claims of birth, beauty, and mind, to throw herself away at nineteen; involve herself at nineteen in an engagement with a young man, who had nothing but himself to recommend him, and no hopes of attaining affluence, but in the chances of a most uncertain profession, and no connexions to secure even his farther rise in that profession; would be, indeed, a throwing away, which she grieved to think of! Anne Elliot, so young; known to so few, to be snatched off by a stranger without alliance or fortune; or rather sunk by him into a state of most wearing, anxious, youth-killing dependence! It must not be, if by any fair interference of friendship, and representations from one who had almost a mother’s love, and mother’s rights, it would be prevented.

It precisely delineates the clash between sober and cautious experience and the giddy conviction that love can overcome any difficulty. This is Austen at her best, for it is clear that Lady Russell’s vision of the potential pitfalls of such an early marriage is perfectly reasonable – and by no means exaggerated. There is no sense of malevolence or ill-will or meanness of spirit in this description of Lady Russell – she is quite unlike Mrs Norris, say, who embodies these qualities so well in Mansfield Park.

So it is perfectly possible to argue in favour of Henry Austen’s choice of title by using the opening of Chapter Four as supporting its appropriateness. Of course, this immediately raises the question of why Austen chose not to open the novel with this summation of previous events but instead gave us the damning portrait of Sir Walter Elliot – which happens to fit perfectly with her acknowledged working title.

Also worth consideration is the fact that, even in this depiction of Lady Russell’s hesitations about the sensibleness of the proposed marriage, Austen carefully indicates that Lady Russell believes herself to be acting in loco parentis and that this justifies the ‘fair interference’ of a friendship of one who ‘had almost a mother’s love, and mother’s rights’. In other words, even though this is a vivid example of the power and importance of persuasion it is enacted by someone who sees herself as an almost valid member of the Elliot family acting in the best interests of a beloved younger member – whatever the personal consequences for Anne. Austen ends her summary quite explicitly:

A few months had seen the beginning and the end of their acquaintance; but, not with a few months ended Anne’s share of suffering from it. Her attachment and regrets had, for a long time, clouded every enjoyment of youth; and an early loss of bloom and spirits had been their lasting effects.

The power and precision of those consequences might well be read, if not quite as an indictment of this family interference, certainly as a graphic illustration of what the modern reader might interpret as the profound psychophysiological effects on Anne. Indeed, this relationship between the mind and the emotions and how these interact with and influence the physical body becomes one of the constant themes in the novel, creating the gentle comedy (but serious concern) of how Anne determines to hide her feelings from others however difficult that might be.

Persuasion, then, is clearly an important concern in the novel – as Tanner pointed out by referencing ‘the debate, the struggle, the contestation, the contrarieties and ambiguities’ which it explores. But it might best be viewed as an exploration – despite the fact that it sets up the deliciously autumnal romantic and uplifting tone enjoyed by so many readers – that is contained within a wider focus on the dynamics and behaviour of the Elliot family. Even in Chapter Four and its recital of the circumstances surrounding the first truly important act of persuasion it seems significant that it is merely reported through Austen’s default narrative technique of free indirect discourse. There is no direct or dramatic description of any conversation or confrontation, only the narrator’s voice speaking through Lady Russell’s and Anne’s supposed memories of their thoughts and feelings. We read that Lady Russell was “continually advising” Anne to end the engagement.  And whereas “it might yet have been possible to withstand her father’s ill-will” this sustained onslaught from one “whom she had always loved and relied on” eventually carried the day with “such steadiness of opinion, and such tenderness of manner” that Anne did change her mind, breaking off the engagement with Wentworth and imagining herself “consulting his good, even more than her own”. For an event so fundamental to Anne’s happiness the overall tone here is cool and distanced. Some readers might argue also that despite the fact that Lady Russell clearly believes that she is acting in Anne’s best interests there is an undercurrent of social aloofness in her argument against marrying Wentworth, ‘who had nothing but himself to recommend him’ and ‘no connexions’, and who was essentially little more than ‘a stranger without alliance or fortune’. Further, in the next paragraph Austen opens up another element of what Lady Russell thinks of as purely detached advice based on the prudence of age and experience – she just doesn’t like Wentworth:

Such confidence, powerful in its own warmth, and bewitching in the wit which often expressed it, must have been enough for Anne; but Lady Russell saw it very differently. – His sanguine temper, and fearlessness of mind, operated very differently on her. She saw in it but an aggravation of the evil. It only added a dangerous character to himself. He was brilliant, he was headstrong. – Lady Russell had little taste for wit; and of any thing approaching to imprudence a horror. She deprecated the connexion in every light.

This clearly has relevance to the consideration of the nature and force of persuasion in the novel. It would be difficult to find a clearer statement of how human beings, whatever their intelligence, character and efforts to act altruistically, all fall victim to the tendency to persuade themselves that their opinions are founded on percipience rather than constructed and conditioned by unconscious preferences nurtured by their upbringing.

However, although this insight is presented within the context of what might be called Anne’s narrative it is also central to another of the novel’s themes that happens to be very much embedded in the working title. The Elliot family, that title implies, is to be viewed not only with reference to itself but also as emblematic of the social structure of which it is a part. And just as this passage offers a beautiful illustration of how complex the various elements that help shape particular persuasions can be, it also pinpoints one of the weaknesses of Regency social structure within the context of class division and power. For Lady Russell indisputably views Wentworth through the lens of the governing elite; and on the emblematic or symbolic level of the writing, he very much undermines and threatens the prevailing authority exercised by the landed gentry – represented here by Lady Russell and Sir Walter Elliot, who cannot accept and so frustrate his intended marriage.

Wentworth is depicted as forceful, confident and above all active, qualities regarded as unpleasantly forward if we note the vocabulary Austen gives Lady Russell as typical of the viewpoint of her class. As the first three chapters of the novel demonstrate, where Wentworth is forceful, confident and active Sir Walter is complacent, contemptuous and very much passive in his social and parental obligations and responsibilities. As the novel progresses this stark difference takes on more weight, with Wentworth’s vigour (and by extension, the growing importance of the Navy) contrasted with Sir Walter’s empty life in Bath. Having had to leave Kellynch Hall for lodgings in Bath because of his financial, social, and general carelessness, he is content to be fulfilled by concerts, card parties and the smallest acknowledgement from his distant cousin Lady Dalrymple – who seems to have nothing to recommend her apart from the hauteur of her more socially important title. As the novel progresses these characters from the gentry and minor nobility unmistakably and increasingly represent in the repetitive vacuousness of their lives a fading elite who, had they been in France, would almost certainly have found their way to the guillotine. And within the terms of Anne’s narrative, of course, they become less and less important.

However, within the terms of the wider narrative of the novel they remain important as one of its interlocking themes and structures: how people generally are constantly persuading and being persuaded by others and struggling to understand each other; how the wider narrative is built on and around a series of intersecting family circles that each have a representative function in the depiction of the society Austen creates; how the text outside Anne’s narrative increasingly demonstrates that society’s desperate need for change; and how, despite the individual success of the rekindled recognition and love between Anne and Wentworth, and their role as offering some hope for the future, very little actually changes. The exquisite and painful intensity between Anne and Wentworth that grows as the novel – of whatever title – progresses exists within this ambient tension of a society that clearly needs to adapt to the myriad changes taking place around it and yet whose governing elite remains unmoving, locked within its own essentially petty concerns. In this context Anne gains another importance.

She has essentially come to an accommodation with herself and the world, however muted. It is possible to see her standing within her family as a self-inflicted penance or atonement. Her peripatetic life has no fixed centre except her consistent moral vision and conviction – otherwise her narrative is one of constant dislocation and movement which nonetheless displays her increasing openness to change.


There is a more absolutist approach to this question of whether the novel should be called Persuasion or The Elliots which is expressed by two academic commentators: Gérard Genette, the French literary scholar and structuralist theorist often associated with Roland Barthes and Claude Lévi-Strauss; and Ibrahim Taha, Professor of Arabic Literature and Literary Semiotics at the University of Haifa in Israel.

In his 1988 paper Structure and Functions of the Title in Literature (in Critical Inquiry14: 692-720) Genette argues that titling is a form of communication, and

As in the case of any instance of communication, the title at the least is composed of a message (the title itself), a ‘destinateur,’ and an intended recipient 

That is, the writer (the ‘destinateur’), through the choice of title, sends a message to the reader indicating the writer’s core intention or focus. In terms of Austen’s novel, the message communicated by Persuasion might essentially suggest an interest in an ongoing social, emotional and linguistic process foregrounded in Anne’s attempts to achieve autonomy and happiness outside of or despite her family; whereas The Elliots would, as already suggested, locate her struggle within the encompassing context of family and how it operates, with specific reference to a named family whose various members in their different ways structure and define wider aspects of that struggle which becomes the focus of the exploration of the family as well as of Anne. For Genette this would help explain why the love story element of the novel does not emerge until Chapter Four and why the novel opens not with Anne and the clouded sense of regret and unhappy memories of failure but with the quite devastating portrait of her father alongside a potted history of the Elliot family. For Genette Persuasion as the choice of title cannot fulfil its role because, as it was chosen by her brother, there can be no ‘message’ from the author. Persuasion as a title is merely a statement of one reader’s interpretation of Austen’s intention.

Ibrahim Taha, in his 2009 paper Semiotics of Literary Titling: Three Categories of Reference (in Applied Semiotics, No. 22) argues that

The basic assumption is that a literary title, like the body of the text, includes various historical, cultural, biographical, literary, and stylistic signs. It may be termed the collection point or the melting pot of different types of raw materials. It processes, improves, and reproduces these raw materials in a certain dosage, which the author tries to adjust to the needs of both text and reader.

And after a relatively extended discussion of the function of naming or giving titles he concludes that

But if the literary title is not proposed by the author himself but by another authority, this title is not binding, not even on the practical level of discussion

This admirable purity potentially prevents worthwhile discussion of a text, especially if there is some evidence of the author’s working title and what that might suggest as to original intention. After all, if it is the case that, as suggested at the beginning of this section, the title helps shape the reader’s interpretation of the text at each moment in the process of reading, it is equally possible that the title (or the working title) helps shape the writer’s approach to the text at each moment in the process of writing. Or as Eco might put it, there is surely a constant interplay between the initial intentio auctoris and the developing intentio operis as the text progresses and subtly modifies first ideas.

If we judge The Elliots to be the nearest approximation to what might have been Austen’s definitive final title how does that change the focus of an interpretation of the novel beyond what has already been suggested – that Anne’s narrative is no longer foregrounded but assimilated within the larger canvas of the Elliot family? After all, every novel that Austen published displays her awareness of what the modern reader might call the vexed issue of family dynamics. In one way or another every novel demonstrates how families complicate the lives of her heroines – usually connected to some form of parental failure, be it negligence or indifference or a willingness to sacrifice their happiness on the altar of grossly unsuitable marriages. But none of her previous novels uses the family groups they contain and explore as a title. Each of them presents the family of the heroine as a personal and restricted set of influences within a narrow self-enclosed setting that has no wider effect on the themes and issues the novel examines. However problematic, obstructive or negligent family members may be ultimately they do not affect the outcome: the heroine marries the man she loves, even if her friends (such as Charlotte Lucas) have to marry for different reasons.

Using The Elliots as the definitive title does not prevent the novel from continuing to explore many of her established canonical themes and interests as established by her earlier works – but the act of foregrounding the idea of ‘the family’ inevitably moves it beyond questions of internal family dynamics into the realm of a symbolic, social and even a quasi-political significance given the historical context of the novel’s action. In this sense, the ‘message’ sent by The Elliots can justly be seen as both consonant with her earlier works and a radical enlargement of them.

Viewed from this perspective the working title highlights – in addition to any emblematic function – an aspect of the plot structure of the novel: that the characters are carefully arranged into family groups. They fall into discrete (though generally interconnected) groups: the Elliots (including by extension Lady Russell; and, through her friendship with Elizabeth, Mrs Clay); the Musgroves, connected to the Elliots  through Mary’s marriage to Charles; and through the renting of Kellynch Hall to the Crofts, Wentworth’s family via his sister Mrs Croft. Even the Naval connection through Wentworth’s friends coheres around notions of the family: Captain Harville and his wife, and Captain Benwick, who had been engaged to Harville’s sister. Even the latecomer, the widowed and immobile Mrs Smith, is presented with a sense of family background.

Through this widening circle of social interrelationships the ‘family’ forever renews itself; and because of the tendency to foreground Anne’s narrative and her emotional involvement with Wentworth it is sometimes easy to forget or ignore the fact that at the close of the novel there are three new marriages performing this function of widening social circles: Anne and Wentworth; Louisa Musgrove and Captain Benwick; and Henrietta Musgrove and Charles Hayter. Although the novel ends with the comment that after her marriage Anne now belongs

to that profession which is, if possible, more distinguished in its domestic virtues than in its national importance

and is a reference to Wentworth and his little knot of Naval friends, it has deeper resonances – for the act of marriage itself is of ‘national importance’. It signifies the continuing process of social renewal through the family unit – even one as dysfunctional and decayed as the Elliots – which for Austen is perhaps the primary foundation of both the individual and, eventually, of society itself.

Given that the novel can be read in part as a study of the effect of the family on the individual, it might be worth finishing by considering the 1987 article Why are children in the same family so different from one another? by Robert Plomin and Denise Daniels, published in Behavioral and Brain Sciences, Vol 10, Issue 1. They say of their research that:

One of the most important findings that has emerged from human behavioral genetics involves the environment rather than heredity, providing the best available evidence for the importance of environmental influences on personality, psychopathology, and cognition. The research also converges on the remarkable conclusion that these environmental influences make two children in the same family as different from one another as are pairs of children selected randomly from the population.

And in a comment made to The New York Times when the newspaper reviewed the research findings in July 1987, Dr Daniels summarised them as:

All the psychological theories point to the family as the basic unit of socialization. If so, you would expect children from the same family to be largely similar. But it is really quite the opposite. The assumption that the family environment operates the same for all children in it does not hold up.

The immediate relevance to Austen’s quiet portrayal of the basic differences between the three Elliot daughters is, perhaps, testimony to her insight regarding how families work in practice rather than within an overarching theory.

At the very least, perhaps, the reader conscious of the debate around the novel’s two titles has the opportunity to see some of the possible drivers of the fascinating and still relevant creative tensions within the text – and through is this possibly enabled to arrive at a more confident view of what Austen has achieved.

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© Mike Liddell 2019