- The Good: A nice girl gets a happy ending
- The Bad: Large cast of unlikeable characters that dominate the story
- The Literary: Great satirical social commentary
A young Anne Elliot falls in love with Frederick Wentworth and accepts a marriage proposal, but her family and friends persuade her that he’s beneath her station, so Anne breaks off their engagement. Eight years later, Anne is still single and nearly an old maid at the dried up age of 27. Her older sister and father are business partners, her younger sister is married with children, and Anne is generally left out, living a quiet life of books and long walks, generally regretful of her life choices.
Due to many years of a lavish lifestyle without bringing in any income, the Elliot family rents out their large estate, Kellynch Hall, and moves to a smaller home in Bath. The new tenants at Kellynch are a navy admiral and his wife, Mr and Mrs Croft, the brother of whom happens to be a Captain Frederick Wentworth, Anne’s former fiance, now esteemed and wealthy, and still unattached. What follows is a set of humorously uncomfortable encounters, misunderstandings, and a second chance for Anne.
Anne is one of the nicest protagonists you’ll ever meet. She’s gracious and kind and wants everyone to be happy, converses softly with the person at the party who isn’t blending in, watches sick kids so her sister can have a night out, patiently explains why a play is culturally important to the frivolous ladies in her circle, and stays level-headed in a crisis when disaster strikes. Everyone finds her agreeable and pleasant, though she’s widely considered to be skinny and plain compared to her former days.
It refreshing to have such a nice protagonist. But it’s also a little boring. All the growing up takes place before the book begins, as she comes to terms with her decision to break off her engagement. As a character Anne doesn’t have anywhere to grow. What she lacks is Frederick. But even though she desperately wants him, she doesn’t concoct a plan to win him back. She busies herself with her life and tries to carry on. Instead of being the master of her own fate, she lets life happen to her.
Most of the plot revolves around a bunch of courting between other members of the group. When Frederick Wentworth returns, he announces his intentions to marry. Anne’s little sister’s husband Charles Musgrove has two eligible sisters, Henrietta and Louisa, and much speculation revolves around who they fancy, even though Henrietta is already engaged her to cousin Charles Hayter (who Anne turned down several years before). Captain Wentworth brings in two of his friends, Captains Harville and Benwick, the latter of whom is mourning his wife’s recent death. And speaking of cousins and widowers, Anne attracts the attention of her wealthy cousin and widower William Elliot, who could restore their family’s fortune. There’s also a Mrs Clay, Mrs Smith, Lady Dalrymple, among others, who round out the large cast.
The thing is, I don’t really like most of the book. Everyone is generally snooty, judgy, and gossipy. When Anne speaks up, it’s like a breath of fresh air. Which leads me to believe that we the readers aren’t really supposed to like most of the other characters. They represent frivolity and vanity, and it’s with satire that Austen writes them. There’s also the exploration of the main theme, persuasion, especially as it pertains to the choices of young women and all the power plays those choices entail. I appreciate what Austen is doing, but that doesn’t mean I find it a gripping read.
All the best men in the novel are military men, and I wish there was more discussion of the wider world. Despite the lack of conversation, Frederick’s service in the war with France impresses all the characters. There’s a duty and solemnity the naval officers bring with their presence, and it’s clear that Mrs Croft, the navy wife who travel with her husband on ship, sacrifices much in the way of modern comforts with bravery and optimism.
As the Elliot fortune declines, their family represents the fall of old money, and Anne’s father—who literally decorates his bedroom with mirrors—especially displays the dangers of vanity. What saves them all are the characters who make their own fortune with hard work, self-made men who climb the social ladder without schemes, who place honor and patriotic duty to country above all else. They don’t desire to own land or even seek the approval of the gentry.
Overall, I appreciate the subversive nature of this book and it’s comments on the pompous, shallow elite, many of whom exhibit very little class despite their wealth. From a literary perspective, employing a protagonist who doesn’t change, who remains true to herself, only emphasizes the social decay that surrounds her. Anne is a Cinderella of sorts, and her love story is both satisfying and a moral lesson for us all. That doesn’t mean I wasn’t tempted to skim in the middle, though.
Highly recommended for anyone interested in the social flux of the Georgian era, and of course, Austen fans!