Persuasion (1817)

by Jane Austen

With her characteristically happy endings, Jane Austen is a given for an upbeat fiction list. Any of her six novels is recommended, and Pride & Prejudice and Emma are considered two of the greatest novels of all time. But Persuasion has something more to recommend it: It is Austen's most moving novel and perhaps the one that cuts closest to her own grain.

Heroine Anne Elliot is 27 as Persuasion opens — teetering on the brink of old-maid status in the England of two centuries ago. In her secret heart she still loves the sailor whose proposal she turned down at 19 on the advice of her surrogate mother, who was concerned about the man's uncertain financial future. But Frederick Wentworth has done well for himself at sea and now is back on English soil — indeed, in Anne's neck of the woods. Anne has to endure the pain of watching him measure other women as prospective wives. Then, an accident reopens his eyes to Anne's superiority. He realizes he still loves her, and she realizes it too, but the matter isn't resolved: She has to figure out a way to let him know that a second proposal of marriage would be accepted.

No Austen heroine deserves to get her man more than Anne Elliot. Unlike Elizabeth Bennet (prejudiced), Emma Woodhouse (meddlesome), Fanny Price (priggish), Elinor Dashwood (too controlled), Marianne Dashwood (too little controlled), or Catherine Morland (juvenile), Anne behaves impeccably. But demanding nothing for herself, she is nearly invisible to her shallow father and sisters, and she endures neglect and ill use.

It is tempting to wonder whether the wistful tone of Persuasion has something to do with Austen's circumstances when she wrote it. She was sick with the disease (perhaps cancer) that would kill her at age 41. She had long since put on her "spinster's cap," but one wonders whether in Persuasion she was fantasizing about what might have been.


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