Jane Austen’s Persuasion is, in many ways, a book about the influence of literature and reading on the actual events of life. For most of the characters that populate this novel, what they read and how they read it conveys a message about their own perception of life—their conception of past and present, as well as their relationship between reading and emotional experience. From the very beginning of the novel, the narrator cues the reader to the prevalent theme of books and their readers. Our own reading experience in Persuasion commences with Sir Walter Elliot pouring over the pages of his favorite book—the Baronetage—a book that gives him “occupation for an idle hour, and consolation in a distressed one” (9). Thus, we begin our journey by reading a book about a man who is reading a book. Of course, Austen weaves an additional layer of irony in that she, a staunch defender of the literary form of the novel, is writing about the relationship between reader and literature. After devoting so many pages to combatting the image of the novel reader as a type of female Quixote, and creating anti-romance, didactic plots to lend credibility to her genre, Austen’s final novel leaves the reader agape at the possibility that, perhaps, novels and reading can fail us.
Virginia Woolf said of Persuasion that Austen “is beginning to discover that the world is larger, more mysterious, and more romantic than she had supposed. We feel it to be true of herself when she says of Anne: “She had been forced into prudence in her youth, she learned romance as she grew older—the natural sequence of an unnatural beginning” (Woolf). Persuasion is undoubtedly the most mature of Austen’s works because it exposes itself to a deeper investigation of emotional identity, of both the linear and cyclical passage of time, and of the social, political, and moral order in the region of 19th century Britain that, for Anne Elliot, comprises her world. Woolf’s quotation helps to explain why Persuasion no longer espouses the didacticism of Austen’s earlier novels. With the French Revolution in 1789 and the Napoleonic Wars at the turn of the century, the social, political, and moral order of Europe was undergoing a gradual, yet cataclysmic shift, and Austen, writing a few years after the beginning of these events was able to examine this shift retrospectively and comment on it. Although England retained its monarchy, these events did irreparable damage to the old order—damage that shook the ground just enough so that the fortresses and the barricades crumbled a little and Austen could see over the edge of the world she had always known, into the expansive unknown across the sea. As her realization of the world expanded, so too did her understanding of the power of reading and literature.
In Emma, Mansfield Park, Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, and Northanger Abbey reading, at least the reading of certain works, is a means of improvement—reading strengthens the convictions and dictates the behavior of the heroines. In Persuasion, however, reading becomes, rather than a means of improvement, a reflection—mirroring the characters’ own desires. Books fall short of real-life events as the events of the novel deviate from the perfection of the world emulated in each of the characters’ favorite books. Austen’s Persuasion has a depth to it that cannot be found in her previous novels. This depth is presented to the reader in the frightening conclusion that the world of a book is smaller than the real world. If reading is a way in which the characters in previous Austen novels come to know the world around them, order their principles, and gain sound advice, Persuasion adds a new level of urgency to this familiar problem of epistemology by telling us that the world is far more vast than any self-contained world of principals, moral convictions, history, or beautiful emotions comprised within the pages of a book.
When Captain Wentworth returns, reviving the acute emotional stress of earlier days, Anne quickly encounters the uncomfortable dissonance between literature and real life. Trailing after Wentworth and Louisa on a walk at Uppercross, she attempts to block out painful sights and sounds by “repeating to herself some few of the thousand poetical descriptions extant of autumn, that season of peculiar and inexhaustible influence on the mind of taste and tenderness, that season which has drawn from every poet, worthy of being read, some attempt at description, or some lines of feeling” (71). Nature, however, refuses to allow her to dwell in this space created by the romantic poets, and the sight of “the ploughs at work, and the fresh-made path spoke the farmer, counteracting the sweets of poetical despondence, and meaning to have spring again” (72). After this interruption she cannot “fall into a quotation again” (72). Her surroundings bid defiance to Anne’s wish to remain emotionally detached from the scenes of real life playing out in front of her, and testify to the impossibility of remaining in the space created by an author while the world ceaselessly progresses. In contrast to Marianne’s poetic raptures which seem to do such justice to the surrounding landscape and the mood of Sense and Sensibility, Anne’s quotations are not sufficient and “The sweet scenes of autumn were for a while put by—unless some tender sonnet, fraught with the apt analogy of the declining year, with declining happiness, and the images of youth and hope, and spring, all gone together, blessed her memory” (72). This eloquent wish to reside in the static, autumnal world of a romantic poem, devoid of all chance for a change or a “spring” of new life is confronted by the events that actually take place in Persuasion. Just as the image of the farmer’s plough forces Anne to remember the cyclical nature of life, so too her “second spring” of good looks and her second chance at true love remind the reader that the perpetual world of autumn inhabited by the romantic poets is only a temporary resting stop. The quiet, declining world that Anne reads about and in which she tries to find solace and emotional expression, can only be applicable in this liminal phase of her life. The world of a poem has a beginning and an end, but for Anne’s life, the season of autumn is only one phase in a journey that will bring her full circle—to a new summer of life and love.
Anne is not alone in her desire to occupy the beautiful but melancholic world created by the romantic poets. Captain James Benwick, “intimately acquainted with all the tenderest songs of the one poet, and all the impassioned descriptions of hopeless agony of the other,” similarly attempts to submerge himself in the words of the likes of Byron, Scott, and Wordsworth, and to view life only through the lens of these poets (84). Mourning the death of his fiancée Fanny Harville, Benwick turns to reading, especially reading romantic poetry, as the best possible expression of his own grief. The “various lines which imaged a broken heart or a mind destroyed by wretchedness” are reflections of his sorrow (85). For Benwick, as for Anne, the words of the romantic poets mirror the primal emotions and aches of their souls. The power of these words to motivate the actual events of their lives, however, proves itself to be limited. In Benwick’s case, the “hopeless agony” of the romantic poets is a world that cannot be occupied for too long, and he soon finds himself in love with Louisa Musgrove.
Persuasion brings to the forefront the distinction between prose and poetry, as Anne recommends to Benwick “such works of our best moralists, such collections of the finest letters, such memoirs of characters of worth and suffering . . . as calculated to rouse and fortify the mind by the highest precepts, and the strongest examples of moral and religious endurance” (85). The events of the novel show that the status of such works of literature, despite Anne’s glowing recommendation, is diminished in comparison to Austen’s earlier novels. Rather, the plot of Persuasion and the revelation of the human nature that motivates many of the events in the novel contradict this idea that reading such works can create heroic people. In keeping with the theme of Persuasion, the world projected from the pages of these books belongs to a small subset of the educated elite of Britain, and, while the practices they prescribe may be sound, the actions taken by the characters in the novel depict the inability of books to fully encompass the full spectrum of the idiosyncrasies of human nature. The works that molded the mind of Fanny Price and elevated the ideals of Elizabeth Bennet and the Dashwood sisters do not seem to have the same effect in Persuasion. Captain Benwick does not find worth in suffering and spend the remainder of his days as a heroic, yet tragic, religious paragon. Instead, he falls in love with Louisa Musgrove—a girl whose worth is estimated to be less than that of his previous love, Fanny Harville. The inconstancy, the weakness of human nature demonstrated by Captain Benwick, although it surprises many of his friends, should not come as a shock to the reader. By this point in the novel it is clear that nothing in life is static; rather real life is mercurial. The dynamism exhibited by the events in the novel match the inconsistency of human nature and the tendency for humans to follow the cyclical pattern of the world in a way that books, which encompass a finite amount of time and include a beginning and an end, cannot.
Perhaps the strongest example of disconnect between the messages endorsed by literature and the actual happenings of daily life is found in the words of Mrs. Smith. Anne employs an analogy of literature in speaking about those who tend to the sick when she says, somewhat romantically, to Mrs. Smith: “Such varieties of human nature as they are in the habit of witnessing! And it is not merely in follies, that they are well read . . . What instances must pass before them of ardent, disinterested, self-denying attachment, of heroism, fortitude, patience, resignation—of all the conflicts and all the sacrifices that ennoble us most. A sick chamber may often furnish the worth of volumes” (126). To this, the worldly Mrs. Smith replies that in real life situations “the lessons are not often in the elevated style you describe. Here and there, human nature may be great in times of trial, but generally speaking it is its weakness and not its strength that appear in a sick chamber; it is selfishness and impatience rather than generosity and fortitude, that one hears of” (127). This inability of Anne’s literature analogy to accurately describe the world in which she lives is a theme repeated for other characters as they struggle to fit their world between the pages of a book. Most notably, for Sir Walter Elliot, whose favorite book, the Baronetage, details the “history and rise of the ancient and respectable family,” reading has become an escape to the type of world he wishes to live in, rather than the reality taking place before him. Just as Anne would like to imagine the moral fortitude imparted by books on Captain Benwick and the ill in their sick chambers, Sir Walter Elliot would like to freeze the world in time so that the old order of rank and respectability, in which his identity is based, may be preserved forever. In Sir Walter Elliot’s case, we look on again as reality outgrows the world contained in the baronetage. At this point in the history, the stirrings of revolution were felt ubiquitously throughout Europe. The world was changing—those in an active profession, such as the members of the meritocracy exhorted throughout Persuasion, gained newfound respectability, while baronets and people of noble birth were gradually going out of fashion. Thus, while Sir Walter may be able to find refuge in reading, it is because his favorite book mirrors his own desires back to him. No amount of re-reading will stop the progress of the world.
The failure of literature to aptly describe real life comes to a climax in one of the final scenes in the novel when Anne and Captain Harville discuss the respective abilities of males and females to endure in loving another person. Anne claims that, although men may have stronger, more passionate emotions of love, women love longer and more constantly, even when “hope is gone” (189). Harville attempts to use a literary argument against her claim when he replies that “All histories are against you, all stories, prose and verse . . . I do not think I ever opened a book in my life which had not something to say upon woman’s inconstancy” (188). Anne, however, protests that “Men have had every advantage of us in telling their own story. Education has been theirs in so much a higher degree; the pen has been in their hands. I will not allow books to prove anything” (188). In these lines of the novel, Austen completes our utter removal from the world in which literature and books are the ultimate authority. Anne’s unwillingness to submit to the jurisdiction of literature and her admittance that literature fails to fully comprehend all of life casts us into unchartered waters. In these final scenes, Austen markedly establishes the fact that reading can only get us so far. The events of the real world can never be fully encompassed in literature, and we cannot turn to reading as our only means of edification and improvement.
Austen’s unique stylistic choice to have Captain Wentworth author his own letter in silent response to this literary debate emphasizes the centrality of reading and authorship in Persuasion. The return to the epistolary form at the end of the novel lends a highly personal quality to the discussion of reading, and it is in response to this debate over the power of literature that Anne and Wentworth are finally reunited. The conclusion—that books are not the ultimate authority by which one should guide their life, and that literature fails to represent human nature in its entirety—leads Wentworth to take up his pen and write his own story. It is only in reading this letter, which she unwittingly co-authored, that Anne is fully restored to life and love. This recognition that it is necessary to move beyond the realm of literature and to author one’s own story is indicative of Austen’s mature outlook on the world. The world is, as Woolf says, “larger and more mysterious and more romantic than she had supposed.” It is too vast to be contained within the pages of a book, and too infinite to have a concrete beginning and end. Persuasion is rife with examples of reading as a reflection of a static desire, a yearning for something that is slipping away. The beauty of books is that these worlds exist separate from time and space and can be re-entered whenever one is at leisure to peruse their pages. Reality, however, is a wide and ever-changing world. As Anne prepares to leave the land-locked isolation she once shared with the nobility in Sir Walter’s Baronetage and cast out into the boundless, unknown sea, we realize, along with her, that the real world holds much more in store than could be found in the smaller and more contained world of literature.