Persuasion is widely appreciated as a moving love story despite what has been called its simple plot, and it exemplifies Austen's signature wit and ironic narrative style. While writing Persuasion, however, Austen became ill with the disease that would kill her less than two years later. As a result, the novel is both shorter and arguably less polished than Mansfield Park and Emma since it was not subject to the author's usual careful retrospective revision.
Although the impact of Austen's failing health at the time of writing Persuasion cannot be overlooked, the novel is strikingly original in several ways. It is the first of Austen's novels to feature as the central character a woman who, by the standards of the time, is past the first bloom of youth. Austen biographer Claire Tomalin characterises the book as Austen's "present to herself, to Miss Sharp, to Cassandra, to Martha Lloyd . . . to all women who had lost their chance in life and would never enjoy a second spring."
The novel is described in the introduction to the Penguin Classics edition as a great Cinderella story. It features a heroine who is generally unappreciated and to some degree exploited by those around her; a handsome prince who appears on the scene but seems more interested in the "more obvious" charms of others; a moment of realisation; and the final happy ending. It has been said that it is not that Anne is unloved, but rather that those around her no longer see her clearly: she is such a fixed part of their lives that her likes and dislikes, wishes and dreams are no longer considered, even by those who claim to value her, like Lady Russell.
At the same time, the novel is a paean to the self-made man and the power and prestige of the Royal Navy. Captain Wentworth is just one of several upwardly mobile officers in the story who have risen from humble beginnings to affluence and status on the strength of merit and pluck, not inheritance. It reflects a period in Britain when the very shape of society was changing, as landed wealth (exemplified by Sir Walter) finds it necessary to accommodate the growing prominence of the nouveau riche (such as Wentworth and the Crofts). The success of two of Austen's brothers in the Royal Navy is probably significant. There are also clear parallels with the earlier novel Mansfield Park, which also emphasised, in a rather different context, the importance of constancy in the face of adversity, and the need to endure.
As in her earlier novels, Austen makes some biting comments about "family" and how one chooses whom to associate with. Mary Musgrove wants to nurse her sister-in-law Louisa but doesn't want to stay home to care for her own injured son if it means she will miss making the acquaintance of the famous Captain Wentworth. Elizabeth prefers the plebeian Mrs. Clay to her own sister, who avidly seeks the attentions of Lady Dalrymple who is "amongst the nobility of England and Ireland."
Through her heroine's words, Austen also makes a powerful point about the condition of women as "rational creatures" who are nevertheless at the mercy of males when it comes to recounting their own story through history and books, nearly all of which have been produced by men, and many of which castigate women's "inconstancy" and "fickleness." "Men have had every advantage of us in telling their own story. . . the pen has been in their hands," Anne tells Captain Harville. "I will not allow books to prove anything." (Persuasion Volume 2 Chapter 11).
Austen ends her last completed novel on a note similar in many respects to Pride and Prejudice. The heroine marries for love, with money, moves into a social, emotional, and intellectual sphere worthy of her, and leaves her less admirable connections behind.