Persuasion, which follows the renewal of Anne Elliot's romance with the handsome Captain Wentworth, could easily have become a simple boy-meets-girl story, with all the attendant ups and downs readers of the era had come to expect. What Austen does, however, is give us fully realised characters in a world that may be small in its parameters, but which is nonetheless rich and complex. Austen marries social commentary with the exploration of characters in love in such a way that the reader can only marvel at the deft subtlety of it all. Wit, social criticism and an examination of different kinds of love (filial, the love between friends, the love of one's own sense of integrity, the love of a man and a woman) are all displayed with such skill. There are many reasons why Jane Austen is fanatically loved the world over; this novel is certainly one of them.
To say that Austen writes with elegance and wit is stating the obvious, but what she also manages in Persuasion is a wonderful balancing act between wit and gravity. Persuasion investigates regret, lessons learned almost too late (but the 'almost' is redemptive), and reconciliation through time and experience. It's the work of a fully mature writer at the peak of her writing skill. The finely drawn exposition of Anne Elliot's character, and the subtle persuading of Captain Wentworth from stubborn ex-suitor to a man capable of fully appreciating Anne's qualities, exemplify Austen's superbly authentic character depiction and development. And that's without mentioning the fully fledged and powerful minor characters, like the sensitive, lettered Captain Harville and the good-natured Mrs. Smith.
Pompous self-concern has many faces, and in what might be her strongest argument against the futile and silly in society, Austen illustrates that sense and affection will always be superior to rank and money. In the Elliots (sans Anne), Austen gives us the height of vanity and avarice. In the Wentworths and the Crofts she showcases middle-class values of hard work paying off, through naval officers advancing on their own merits. And with Anne's school friend, Mrs Smith, Austen ably represents the innocent victims of selfishness on the part of the social elite. This is an important novel about so much more than the troubled love between two characters. It is also a highly entertaining treatise against the more damaging social mores of the day.
The romance, on the other hand, reveals so much about how men and women interact, the misunderstandings of temperament and gender. And carefully woven around the story of Anne is the mirroring tragedy of Captain Benwick and Fanny Harville, which culminates in the relationship between Benwick and Louisa Musgrove. It is a perfect plot device, but also a comment on the superiority of the affection that Anne and Wentworth have for one another. Further, Anne Elliot's gentle remonstrance of Captain Harville, that all female depictions (specifically feminine approaches to love) have been written by men, is a reference to the realities of the day, but it also highlights the fact that Austen is doing the opposite -- that the female voice, so well-represented in this novel, is heard through Anne Elliot, a woman who is steadfast, but intelligent, in love.
Austen and her fellow female novelists of the late 18th and early 19th centuries were attempting to overturn the prevailing misrepresentation of women by male authors. Austen's is, arguably, the voice that has come down to us as one of the most measured, the most assured, the most worthy of attention.
Criticism that Jane Austen's neat endings (including this one) are artificially achieved, with too much exposition in the wrapping up, is fair if one judges her by today's standards. She was writing within a tradition already choked with the weeds of epistolary novels, historical novels with exposition galore, and the gothic tales of suspense and horror. Read in this context, Jane Austen can be seen as something of a pioneer. If she stumbles slightly near the finish line on her way to the gold medal, well, so be it. For many readers, her endings are just what they should be: humorous, often tongue-in-cheek commentaries on the expectations of marriage. In Persuasion, she employs the union of Anne Elliot and Captain Wentworth to illustrate the great gap between being a gentleman and behaving like a gentleman. It is Anne's Captain, after all, who reverses the injustices of Mr William Elliot, heir to Kellynch Hall, towards Mrs Smith.
Persuasion is a finely-tuned example of prose at its best. Jane Austen's reflections on love and society are still relevant today, showing us what people are capable of, and how dynamic and fascinating life is, even when represented on a small canvas.
Edinburgh Magazine (1818): The singular merit of her writing is, that we could conceive, without the slightest strain of imagination, any one of her fictions to be realized in any town or village in England, (for it is only English manners that she paints,) that we think we are reading the history of people whom we have seen thousands of times, and that with all this perfect commonness, both of incident and character, perhaps not one of her characters is to be found in any other book, portrayed at least in so lively and interesting a manner.
Quarterly Review (1821): Persuasion . . . possesses that superiority which might be expected from the more mature age at which it was written, and is second, we think, to none of the former ones, if not superior to all.
Fraser's Magazine (1860): Persuasion is memorable for containing Anne Elliot, the most perfect in character and disposition of all Miss Austen's women . . . To Miss Austen all subsequent novelists have been infinitely indebted.
North British Review (1870): Anne Elliot is Shakespeare's Viola translated into an English girl of the nineteenth century.