Persuasion is half a major Jane Austen novel, spoiled by death. The book starts splendidly, with Austen in full command of her peerless champagne and acid prose style, and serving up reasonably fresh variations on familiar characters and themes, including …
• The oppressive fools preoccupied with social position
• The charming scoundrel who first half-catches the heroines’ fancy
• The problematic suitor eventually revealed as Mr. Right
• The hard reckonings between love and money forced by the entailed estate
Best of all, Persuasion features an intelligent, interesting heroine in Anne Elliot whose diffidence – like that of Fanny Price in Mansfield Park – creates compositional challenges for Austen by putting at the center of the novel a character who does not naturally command the center of the stage, and drive the plot, the way Elizabeth Bennet, Elinor Dashwood, and Emma Woodhouse all do, in their very different ways.
And yet, Austen handles the first half of Persuasion beautifully. She keeps the drama low-key and the pacing steady. The story rises naturally from the characters and incidents. And each complication is managed with a light expert hand. As I read, I kept saying, “Wow, Austen is really on her game.”
And then, at what should have been the middle of the novel, Persuasion slams into two enormous blocks of exposition, comes to a dead stop, and ends.
Exposition is an important tool for novelists and Austen knows how to use it, often at the beginning of a novel, where she is establishing the premise, and at the end, where she is tidying up loose ends and letting us know what happens to the characters after the major action is over.
The problem with the exposition is Persuasion is that it doesn’t supplement the action of the story. Instead, the exposition replaces the action of the story.
In the first instance, Austen dismisses the charming scoundrel through an endless discussion between Anne Elliot and an invalid friend, to whom the scoundrel just happened to have confessed even insulting opinion he ever held toward Anne’s family while he was also busy driving her friend’s husband to bankruptcy and early death.
So informed of the scoundrel’s scoundrelness, Anne Elliot drops him from her thoughts, and his role in the novel is done.
In the second instance, soon after the first, Austen contrives to have Anne Elliot overheard in a conversation about love by the problematic Mr. Right, who immediately sends a letter explaining himself, and re-proposing marriage, which Anne accepts, and which pretty much brings the novel to a close.
It was hard for me to think that a writer with Austen’s talent and experience could suddenly turn into such a duffer halfway through a book. Then my wife reminded me that Persuasion was published after Austen’s death.
Austen began writing Persuasion in late 1815 and completed it in August 1816. In early 1816, she fell ill with a disease which progressively weakened her until she died in July 1817.
Someone with a better knowledge of Jane Austen’s life than me will have to say whether we can know if Austen felt she was racing death in 1816, although it is a pleasingly theatrical idea.
But we do know she was feeling the effects of poor health, which I think is a good explanation for the problems in Persuasion. I also find it a moving one.
All novels are deeply personal documents, even when the novelist reveals little or nothing about herself in the work, because of the intensity of energy required to write them.
That Persuasion was flawed by the final drama of Austen’s life gives the ending a power the words themselves don’t quite achieve.