Henry Austen in “A Biographical Notice of the Author,” said of his sister, “Short and easy will be the task of the mere biographer. A life of usefulness, literature, and religion, was not by any means a life of event.”
Jane Austen’s last novel lacks the “lightness” of her earlier efforts. Anne Elliot is more unhappy and constrained than the likes of Elizabeth Bennet or of the Dashwood sisters. Anne certainly is no Cinderella figure. She is too rich and too well placed in Society to be a sympathetic figure, but somehow Austen creates just such a character.
Anne is reminiscent of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, except that Anne lacks Miss Eyre’s sharp tongue. Anne’s personality is visible only to Austen’s readers, those who share Anne’s literary mind and understand the references in the story. Persuasion reflects Jane Austen’s very “typical education.” She had improved her mind by extensive reading. Her audience would also have been aware of her references, but modern audiences are less likely to do so. Below are some of the those points of greatness found in Austen’s last novel.
In reading Persuasion, an Austen fan must have a background in the literature of the time period. For example, the story begins with a reference to John Debrett’s Baronetage of England, which was published in 1808. The baronetage lists baronets. There had been a similar listing published in 1804. The book was small in what was known as a duodecimo format. “Elliot of Kellynch-Hall. Walter Elliot, born March 1, 1760, married July 15, 1784, Elizabeth daughter of James Stevenson, Esq. of South Park, in the county of Gloucester; by which lady (who died 1800) he has issue Elizabeth, born June 1, 1785; Anne, born August 9, 1787; a still-born son, Nov. 5, 1789; Mary, born Nov. 20, 1791.”
That is quickly followed by a reference to Sir William Dugdale’s catalogue of Seventeenth Century nobility. Dugdale published The Ancient Usage in Bearing of such Ensigns of Honour as are commonly call’d Arms in 1682. It chronicles those who hold various titles and honors, including baronets. “Then followed the history and rise of the ancient and respectable family in the usual terms: how it had been first settled in Cheshire; how mentioned in Dugdale – serving the office of High Sheriff, representing a borough in three successive parliaments, exertions of loyalty, and dignity of baronet, in the first year of Charles II., with all the Marys and Elizabeths they had married, forming altogether two handsome duodecimo pages, and concluding with the arms and motto: ‘Principal seat, Kellynch-hall in the county of Somerset.” Mentioning these books sets the stage for Sir Walter’s vanity.
In Volume 1, Chapter 11, Austen says, “… the woody varieties of the cheerful village of Up Lyme, and above all, Pinny, with its green chasms between romantic rocks ….” Austen long description of Lyme and area around it is a deviation from what we customarily find in her writing. Unlike others of her period, Austen rarely provides description of the physical setting of her stories. Most scholars think if Austen had not suffered so with her illness that she would have edited out much of these two pages for the description does little to advance the story line. We know Austen was in Lyme with her family in 1803 and 1804, and perhaps she took the liberty to describe a place she admired. As to the references, likely, Austen “borrowed from Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan,” in which the Romantic Period poet spoke of “deep romantic chasm” (1. 12) and “dancing rocks” (1. 23). This poem was published the year before Austen’s death. Wordsworth and Coleridge helped launch the Romantic movement, but, in truth, they were slow to gain popularity in their own time. Austen does mention Wordsworth in Sandition.
At the end of the same chapter, Anne and Captain Benwick discuss his poetry choices. There are references to Sir Walter Scott’s “Marmion: A Tale of Flooden Field” (1808) and “The Lady of the Lake: A Poem” (1810). George Gordon’s (Lord Byron) receives a mention for “The Giaour: A Fragment of a Turkish Tale” (1813) and “The Bride of Abydos: A Turkish Tale” (1813). Bryon’s works were much talked about at the time of Austen’s writing her novel. Unlike Coleridge and Wordsworth, Sir Walter Scott was highly popular in the time. His switch from writing poetry to novels boosted the novel form greatly. Scott’s two poems dealt with love and war in 16th Century Scotland. Austen mentions both of the two poems by Scott in letters. Byron’s poems have a more tragic slant. They are set in the Middle East. “Giaour” comes from a Muslin term of reproach for infidels. Both the medieval setting for Scott’s poems and the exotic setting for Byron’s appealed to Romanticism.
In Volume 1, Chapter 12, there is another Byron reference. “Lord Byron’s ‘dark blue seas’ could not fail of being brought forward ….” This is a reference to Bryon’s “The Corsair,” a poem from 1814, which sold 10,000 copies on its first day. Austen mentions “The Corsair” in one of her letters (15 March 1814) when she quotes “o’er the glad waters of the dark blue sea/ Our thoughts as boundless, and our souls as free.”
At the end of Chapter 12, one finds an allusion to Matthew Prior’s poem “Henry and Emma.” Austen says, “Without emulating the feelings of an Emma towards her Henry, she would have attended on Louisa ….” Prior’s poem is based on the traditional ballad “The Nut-Brown Maid.” Prior wrote his poem in 1709. To test his love, Henry tells Emma that she must follow him into wild and dangerous woods. When Emma says shell will endure anything for him, Henry says he loves another. The poem “Henry and Emma” tells the story of a girl who proves her selfless love by extending her devotion to the woman she considers to be her rival.
From Volume 2, Chapter 3, one finds the quote, “The elegant little clock on the mantle-piece had struck ‘eleven with its silver sounds,’” to describe Mr. Elliot’s late visit to Camden-place. This is likely a reference to Alexander Pope’s “The Rape of the Lock,” canto 1, line 18 (1714), which says “And the pressed watch returned a silver sound.”
In Volume 2, Chapter 8, Austen adds to the story line with a mention of a character from Fanny Burney’s Cecilia. “She could not do so, without comparing herself with Miss Larolles, the inimitable Miss Larolles ….” Burney was one of Austen’s favorite novelists. Miss Larolles is a member of the fashionable crowd. The lady talks incessantly, using highly exaggerated expressions to describe everything she views. She also contradicts herself often. In the 1782 novel, the character seats herself at theatrical performances in a manner where she might “cultivate” those in her vicinity. Miss Larolles seats herself at the end of a bench at the concert. She speaks to a passerby in hopes of speaking to Mr. Meadows, a man whose attentions she would enjoy if he were not so rude. This parallels Anne’s wish to move to the end of the bench so she might draw Captain Wentworth’s attention.
Finally, in the opening paragraph of Volume 2, Chapter 11, Austen makes a reference to The Arabian Nights or The Thousand and One Nights. “Her faith was plighted, and Mr. Elliot’s character, like the Sultaness Scheherazade’s head, must live another day.” In the story, Scheherazade has married a sultan, who executes each new wife with the dawn of a new day. Scheherazade kept her head by telling the legendary king of Samarkand a new tale every night. A French translation by Antoine Galland of the original tale appeared in Europe in the 1700s. An English translation quickly followed. Its exotic setting fits well in the Romantic period.