The word persuasion appears thirteen times in Jane Austen's first novel, Sense and Sensibility. It appears only seven times in her last novel, although her brother Henry, who published it posthumously, chose it as the title. I'm guessing that Austen might have objected to this because her novel is about so much more than the merits and demerits of pliability as a characteristic. I was struck by many things as I read this poolside in Delray Beach, Florida- a Twenty-First Century Bath. As always, Miss Austen is her wickedly sardonic self, but the tone of the novel seems both elegiac and radical. Her heroine, Anne Elliot has good sense, a kind heart, a delicate, fading beauty...and the worst relatives ever imagined! Her widowed father, a baronet, and her two sisters are vain, vapid narcissists without an ounce of sense between them. Sir Walter is a piece of work, a preening peacock who is as mean-spirited as he is stupid, having squandered the family fortune. Austen is no friend to the nobility - Lady Catherine de Bourgh and Lady Bertram are famous objects of her derision - but no one is as despicable as Sir Walter Elliot, or as duplicitous as his cousin and eventual heir, William Elliot. She has great fun mocking them, but she also reminds us that poor Anne must suffer embarrassment for them, humiliation by them and the loss of her beloved home because of them.
This being a classic Cinderella story, Anne requires a Prince Charming to rescue her. She had broken her engagement to a poor young man years before, having been persuaded by others that he was beneath her. He returns triumphantly as the rich Captain Wentworth, a naval hero in search of a wife. He has persuaded himself that Anne's past behavior was unforgivable and he seems to be rubbing her nose in it. His circle of friends, naval officers and their wives, provides a sharp contrast to the aristocracy. As I read, I wondered what Austen might have thought if she'd been privy to Herman Melville's, Billy Budd, Sailor but I concluded that she is entitled to her romantic notions and, besides, it serves her larger mission to elevate one class as she denigrates another. She isn't just nitpicking here; her nobles are as ignoble as anyone invented by Charles Dickens or F. Scott Fitzgerald. I'd like to think that Austen would be sympathetic to the Occupy Wall Street crowd but truthfully, she might have just as easily have become a Tea Party radical. She sees nothing wrong with great wealth if it is used to good ends and if the wealthy are of good character. What makes reading this such a treat is the comforting idea that anyone can recover from youthful mistakes and that second chances are not only possible, but are desirable outcomes for people who deserve them.