Persuasion is Jane Austen’s last completed novel. She began work on it in the summer of 1815 and completed it by the summer of 1816. The work was published with Northanger Abbey posthumously in December of 1817, six months after Austen’s death in July.
The literary critic Harold Bloom calls Persuasion a “perfect novel” in his book The Western Canon. The reader may judge for him or herself whether the novel deserves such emphatic praise. Speaking of perfection, however, Austen writes in a letter to her friend Fanny Knight that “pictures of perfection. . . make me sick and wicked” and that the heroine Anne Elliot is “almost too good” for her (Spacks x). Within the narrative world of the novel, at least, Anne does appear to approach a certain perfection: she is understanding, sensible, cultivated, of a good family, and by the end both wealthy and married happily.
At the same time, Anne contributes to a melancholic air that many critics feel permeates the novel. As the editor of the Norton edition Patricia Meyer Spacks notes, “the novelist who once mocked Marianne’s enthusiasm for dead leaves (Sense and Sensibility) now allows her heroine, without overt criticism, to take pleasure in evidence of the ‘declining year’” (Spacks ix). Still,a touch of romanticism undoubtedly has its place in the novel. Bloom writes: “[Austen’s] severe distrust and of ‘romantic love,’ so prevalent in the earlier novels, is not a factor in Persuasion” (5).
Persuasion is also a novel that reflects the changing social order of England. Many of the peerage — not to mention baronets like Anne’s father Sir Walter Elliot — could no longer maintain their extravagant lifestyles easily (for more on this topic, see the “Additional Content” section of this ClassicNote). Thus the novel opens with the premise that the Elliots must move to a smaller residence and let their mansion to Admiral Croft of the navy. The navy, incidentally, is highly praised by the third-person omniscient narrator, who reserves many satiric criticisms for the upper class. A historically minded critic might observe: “One need not conclude that the navy will replace the aristocracy as center of social power. But the navy epitomizes a better moral as well as social order. . .” (Spacks xii). Given that Austen had brothers with careers in the navy, such praise is perhaps not so surprising.
The Norton edition consulted in this ClassicNote follows the first edition and includes two canceled chapters from the edition of R. W. Chapman. Hyphenated names such as “Camden-place” have been spelled out as “Camden Place.” All parenthetical citations refer to the text of Persuasion unless otherwise noted.