Persuasion was the last novel Jane Austen completed, and it didn’t appear in print until 1818, after she had passed away. It’s also shorter than most of her other novels, and some critics think that, because she wrote the novel while she was sick with the disease that would eventually kill her, she didn’t expand and polish Persuasion as much as she would have if she had been in good health.
Because of Persuasion’s shorter length, it was published as a package with another novel that Austen hadn’t published during her lifetime – her first completed novel, Northanger Abbey. Publishing the two novels together does make sense as more than a marketing gimmick (two Austen novels for the price of one!) – both are set partly in Bath, both feature bookish heroines, and both have troublesome father figures.
But there are also major differences between the two books. While Northanger Abbey is a lighthearted send-up of Gothic novel clichés, the term scholars most often use to describe Persuasion is “autumnal” – the kind of feeling you get when there’s a chill in the air and dead leaves falling from the trees. Persuasion's protagonist is an aristocratic woman named Anne Eliot. Anne is unmarried, having rejected her lover, a naval officer, after being persuaded by her friends and family that he was unsuitable. At 27 she’s the oldest of Austen’s heroines and, unlike the others, she’s already had, and lost, her chance at love. Anne lives on her memories of summer, but feels that only winter lies ahead.
Persuasion asks: are endings ever really endings? When is it worthwhile holding on to the past, and when should you let it go and move on to the next thing? And the novel asks that question on a much larger scale than just Anne's romantic prospects. In setting up a face off between those who inherited their social status (the aristocracy) and those who worked for it (naval officers), Persuasion examines the pros and cons of the way power is distributed in society – and how that distribution is changing. The novel is set at a historical moment when society is in major flux: the Napoleonic Wars, which had been raging for over a decade, finally seem over, and the troops are at long last coming home to make new lives for themselves as civilians. They return to a nation that glorifies their military service but is ruled by an aristocracy that doesn’t always want to accept them as equals. Can the to-the-manor-born aristocrat and the self-made individual figure out how to get along? Should they even try? Is it time to turn off the life support on the old ways of living, or are there parts worth saving? Not only Anne but her whole society (and Austen's too) have to figure out answers to these questions, or at least think through them well enough to find their way through winter into spring.
While a major theme in Persuasion is, not surprisingly, persuasion, the examples of persuading that the novel provides are very small-scale. Individuals persuade other individuals to do or not to do things that affect a dozen people at most.
Today, persuasion is big business. Between advertising and news media, it’s virtually impossible to get through the day without someone trying to persuade us to buy something or believe something. Persuasive voices speak out from every TV and computer screen, billboard, and bus, telling us that to be sexy, we need to buy this product, or that Candidate X said that the sky is not always blue and don’t you think that’s outrageous? Persuasion is no longer limited to our friends and relations – it’s everywhere we look.
So what can Persuasion tell us about dealing with persuasion today? Does the novel suggest it’s something we should listen to, or try to ignore?
Austen's novel portrays persuasion as a powerful tool, but doesn’t declare it to be either right or wrong – it depends on who uses it, and for what ends. Sometimes persuasion can act as helpful advice, but sometimes it can push a person towards a bad decision or a false belief. The question is, how can we tell the difference? What can we use to find a middle ground between the extremes of believing everything we hear or just tuning it all out? And how do we make up our minds when different sources are trying to persuade us to do or think different things? Persuasion doesn’t necessarily give us answers to these questions, but it does remind us that we need to keep asking them.