A lovely tale of atonement
There can be no certainty as to what title Jane Austen intended to bestow on her last novel. Considering her first published works “Sense and sensibility” and “Pride and Prejudice” – whose titles where based on plot-pervasive dichotomous feelings –, followed close by toponymic titles such as “Mansfield Park” and “Northanger Abbey”, critics have acknowledged that it was highly expected that Austen would call her last novel “The Elliots” on the track of the eponym “Emma”. Notwithstanding, the title attributed by her brother stands as a very proper one, guiding the reader to the observance of swift or long-lasting changes of judgment provoked by the words of others. To persuade and be persuaded is, indeed, the novel’s leitmotiv, where one accompanies the compunctious story of Anne Elliot, who, seven years prior to the beginning of the narrative, had rejected one Frederick Wentworth, under the advice of a friend and her proud and conceited family.
The novel is, thus, a story of atonement: Anne must regain the affections of Wentworth, once repealed for lack of fortune and connections, for she herself had never ceased to love him. It discusses whether one should accept pieces of advice from others or trust one’s heart on matters of affection, as well as the role of women when bonds, love and endurance are concerned. The following passage is an example of Anne’s claims of the misfortunes of her sex: “Yes. We certainly do not forget you, so soon as you forget us. It is, perhaps, our fate rather than our merit. We cannot help ourselves. We live at home, quiet, confined, and our feelings prey upon us. You are forced on exertion. You have always a profession, pursuits, business of some sort or other, to take you back into the world immediately, and continual occupation and change soon weaken impressions.”
And once again – as seen in “Northanger Abbey” – we readers witness another instance of Jane Austen’s defense of women’s place in culture as both readers and creators of genres of their own. In the quotation below, Anne forbids her interlocutor to appeal to books in matters of love – for they are mainly written by men: “Perhaps I shall. – Yes, yes, if you please, no reference to examples in books. Men have had every advantage of us in telling their own story. Education has been theirs in so much higher a degree; the pen has been in their hands. I will not allow books to prove any thing.” Or in the oblique yet delightfully well put condemnation of women’s education: “Henrietta and Louisa, young girls of nineteen and twenty, who had brought from a school at Exeter all the usual stock of accomplishments, and were now, like thousands of other young ladies, living to be fashionable, happy and merry”. Anne’s father and sisters – Elizabeth (oldest, single) and Mary (youngest and married) – are mordantly depicted and perhaps accountable for the most exquisite humorous moments of the novel.
It is fairly expected to find one smiling when reading any of Jane Austen’s novels. This immediate response, rather than the product of contemptuous acceptance of the frivolous, is provoked by a certain sense of impunity, of delicious youthfulness, of subtle irony and feminine wit, which pervades all her work. As one walks with her characters, dances with them, lays together in drawing-rooms or peruses letters of ill-favored news, one gradually, if not immediately, grows fond of them and becomes a faithful companion to their fortunes. Persuasion – posthumously published – is certainly not Jane Austen's master piece. It does, whatsoever, render a many great features of previous works, and guaranties as many joyful moments of reading as any other work from this brilliant writer.