The Timeliness and Timelessness of Jane Austen’s ‘Persuasion’
COMMENTARY: Beloved heroine Anne Elliot exhibits enduring virtues.
If the popularity of an author were to be based on how frequently their work has been adapted, Jane Austen would certainly be among the most prominent. New adaptations often prompt me to return to the source material, and so I return to the last of Austen’s novels, finished in 1816.
This story has remained not only relevant, but one in which people across generations and cultures can see themselves.
My personal favorite of Austen’s works, Persuasion introduces readers to an older heroine, Anne Elliot, who eight years before was persuaded not to marry Frederick Wentworth, the man she loved. In the present of the story, she is 27 and must endure his return — as a naval captain — into her society.
Anne continues to teach me that even in the midst of suffering, one can continue to seek the good and even help others. The novel does not glorify suffering, but highlights virtues that are often overlooked in modern — and Anne’s own — society. One of these is fortitude. The Catechism of the Catholic Church defines fortitude as “the moral virtue that ensures firmness in difficulties and constancy in the pursuit of the good” (1808).
Having suffered an “early loss of bloom and spirits” because of her decision to part from Wentworth, Anne’s fortitude manifests itself in the way she cares for others and navigates her own sufferings. She visits her younger sister, Mary, of whom Austen says, “any indisposition sunk her completely; she had no resources for solitude.” She also provides company to the grief-stricken Capt. James Benwick by suggesting a “larger allowance of prose” in his reading diet because she notices he is prone to deep melancholy; “she ventured to hope that he did not always read only poetry; and to say, that she thought it was the misfortune of poetry, to be seldom safely enjoyed by those who enjoyed it completely; and that the strong feelings which alone could estimate it truly, were the very feelings which ought to taste it but sparingly.” Anne understands what it is to grieve, to feel out of sorts and indisposed, and has built up the inner resources to tend to herself — and others — in that place.
Closely intertwined with Anne’s fortitude is her display of temperance. Defined by the Catechism as “the moral virtue that … ensures the will’ s mastery over instincts and keeps desires within the limits of what is honorable” and “directs the sensitive appetites toward what is good and maintains a healthy discretion” (1809), it manifests in Anne’s desire both to seek solitude in states of agitation, but also to not shy away from feeling.
Persuasion was written during the time in which Romantic poetry was popular. One of the key figures of the Romantic Era, William Wordsworth, defined poetry in the “Preface” to his Lyrical Ballads in this way: “Poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility.”
At first glance, that definition might almost seem like an oxymoron. How does the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings relate to emotion recollected in tranquility? In Anne’s display of fortitude and temperance, readers can better understand Wordsworth’s definition. Though low spirits have marked her life since the departure of Wentworth, she has allowed herself to feel the hard emotions. Indeed, in one part of the book, she reflects on her preference for people who are “open”:
“She prized the frank, open-hearted, eager character beyond all others. Warmth and enthusiasm did captivate her still. She felt that she could so much more depend upon the sincerity of those who sometimes looked or said a careless or hasty thing, than of those whose presence of mind never varied, whose tongue never slipped.”
And yet Anne so often takes refuge in moments where she can recollect strong feelings. This isn’t to stuff them down, but to allow her time to process what she is feeling. This practice helps her discern how she wants to share her feelings — and with whom. As she notes in her conversation with Benwick, when the heart is constantly stirred to spontaneous overflow of emotion (as it might be if one continues to read the tragic Romantic epics of that era), there is no room for solitude. And yet, as seafaring wife Mrs. Croft, famously says, “We none of us expect to be in smooth water all our days.”
The movement between moments of solitude and moments of feeling are what make Miss Elliot a fascinating character. Her temptation is to “feel less,” especially when in the presence of Wentworth, who initially hardly interacts with her because he is still wounded by their history. Her victory is that her inner resources — like finding solitude in poetry and pursuing the good of others — do not stifle feeling. They instead compose her enough to navigate times of distress.
It is Anne’s fortitude and temperance that bring her to a moment that is perhaps truest to Wordsworth’s definition of poetry, where powerful feeling flows from a brief moment of solitude. You Austen lovers know what I’m talking about: Wentworth’s hastily scrawled missive that declares to Anne, “You pierce my soul.” And lest you protest this is a bit too much powerful emotion, the description of Anne’s inner world in this moment is equally exquisite:
“The revolution which one instant had made in Anne, was almost beyond expression. … Half an hour’s solitude and reflection might have tranquilized her, but the ten minutes only, which now passed before she was interrupted, with all the restraints of her situation, could do nothing toward tranquility. Every moment rather brought fresh agitation. It was an overpowering happiness.”
Though in this moment, Anne only gets the briefest of solitudes — the time it takes to read the letter and discover its meaning — every moment Anne took for solitude before this allowed her to experience the fullness of emotion she now feels.
Perhaps in a world so burdened with sorrow, with more instant information available than we could ever consume, difficult relationships, and the recent experience of separation wrought by COVID, Anne’s long-suffering feels relevant. And yet, her sorrow is transformative — of herself and of those around her. She is proof that the difficult in our lives does not have to sink us, that we are made of sterner stuff than we ever imagined.
Persuasion is the mapping of bloom, of resurrection. As Anne begins to recover her spirits, one cannot help but rejoice in her transformation, in the fullness of her joy. In our days that can seem at times marked by an air of hopelessness, Jane Austen’s final novel is a call to a love that hopes beyond itself. The call to our own moments of solitude — prayer, meditation, quiet —is clear. The loudness of our age makes recollection imperative.
A final line from the end of the novel so beautifully captures the virtues Anne lives. After a chance to convey her feelings of love to her beloved Wentworth, Austen writes of her heroine:
“An interval of meditation, serious and grateful, was the best corrective of every thing dangerous in such high-wrought felicity; and she went to her room, and grew steadfast and fearless in the thankfulness of her enjoyment.”
May we also recover a steadfastness and fearlessness in our thankfulness for the good, the true, the beautiful — and the joyful.
Poet and writer Lindsey Weishar holds an MFA from the University of Missouri-Kansas City. She writes for a variety of outlets, including Verily magazine. Her column, “My Vocation is Love,” appears in The Catholic Post, the newspaper of her home Diocese of Peoria, Illinois.