Mental Floss
BOOKS

10 Facts About Jane Austen’s ‘Persuasion’

Ellen Gutoskey
The iconic letter hand-off.
The iconic letter hand-off. / (Book cover) Penguin Random House; (Background) James Mato
facebooktwitterreddit

Persuasion might not be quite as well-known as Pride and Prejudice, Emma, or other Jane Austen novels. But to many, Anne Elliot and Captain Wentworth’s tale of love lost and found is one of the author’s most poignant works. Here are 10 facts about the book and its lasting cultural influence.

1. Persuasion was Jane Austen’s last finished novel.

Austen wrote the first drafts of Pride and Prejudice, Northanger Abbey, and Sense and Sensibility in the 1790s and then revised them for publication in the 1810s. Such was not the case with Persuasion, Emma, or Mansfield Park, which were all written and released in the 1810s. Persuasion was the last of these: Austen penned the first draft between August 8, 1815, and July 18, 1816, and completed her revisions less than a month later. 

Though she didn’t make any actual plans to publish the novel, we do know that she considered it in good enough shape to do so. “I have a something ready for Publication, which may perhaps appear about a twelvemonth hence,” she wrote to her niece Fanny in March 1817.

But that summer, on July 18, the author passed away from what may have been Addison’s disease or Hodgkin’s lymphoma. She was just 41 years old. Austen had another novel in the works at the time—Sanditon—but Persuasion remains her final finished one.

2. It was published posthumously—but not exactly anonymously.

first edition persuasion and northanger abbey title page
The title page of a first-edition copy. / Lilly Library, Indiana University, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

About five months after Austen’s death, her brother Henry and sister Cassandra released her two as-yet-unpublished finished novels, Persuasion and Northanger Abbey, as one four-volume publication that hit shelves on December 20, 1817.

While it’s a bit of a misconception that Jane Austen was totally anonymous throughout her career, it is true that the works published during her lifetime didn’t mention her by name. That didn’t exactly change with the release of Northanger Abbey and Persuasion, which were credited to “the author of ‘Pride and Prejudice,’ ‘Mansfield-Park,’ &c.” But they also contained a “biographical notice of the author,” widely believed to have been written by Henry, which revealed her identity.

“When the public, which has not been insensible to the merits of ‘Sense and Sensibility,’ ‘Pride and Prejudice,’ ‘Mansfield Park,’ and ‘Emma,’ shall be informed that the hand which guided that pen is now mouldering in the grave, perhaps a brief account of Jane Austen will be read with a kindlier sentiment than simple curiosity,” Henry wrote. The rest of the biographical notice reads like a cross between a eulogy and an obituary. 

3. Austen didn’t choose the title.

Austen reportedly called the story The Elliots, though that may have been more of a casual placeholder than an intended title. Whatever the case, someone—likely Henry and/or Cassandra—dubbed it Persuasion after her death. (Austen didn’t choose Northanger Abbey, either; her working title had been Catherine, after the main character.)

4. Austen drew inspiration from her two sailor brothers.

charles austen and francis austen
Charles (left) and Francis Austen. / (Charles) Impereur.blogspot.com, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain; (Francis) The Jane Austen Centre, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Austen had two brothers, Charles and Francis (Frank), both of whom served in the British navy during the Napoleonic Wars. While it’s generally agreed that they helped inspire Persuasion’s many naval officers, the specifics are up to interpretation. Some scholars believe Frank’s closest parallel is Captain Harville, who, like Frank, kept busy with carpentry and toy-making. As Brian Southam wrote in a 2003 article published in Persuasions: The Jane Austen Journal, Frank’s characteristic solemnity may also be mirrored in “Harville’s gravity and the serious tones in which he discusses matters of suffering and endurance with Anne in the final scenes of Persuasion.”

Charles, meanwhile, is often compared to Wentworth. “Both men initially enjoyed the pursuit of possible prize vessels as commanders of their own small sloops,” Sheila Johnson Kindred wrote in a 2009 article from the same journal. “Both were on foreign stations at the time these activities began (1805-1806); both were about the same age and serving their first postings as commanding officers. Both were well liked by their officers and men.” They were both also generous in sharing prize money with their fellow sailors, though Wentworth’s exploits made him quite a bit richer than his purported real-life counterpart.

5. Persuasion originally had a different climax.

illustration from 1898 edition of persuasion by jane austen
An illustration by C.E. Brock from an 1898 edition of 'Persuasion.' / Solitary-elegance.com, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

During the actual climax of Persuasion, Captain Wentworth overhears a conversation in which Anne tells Captain Harville that she believes women hang onto lost love for much longer than men do. Realizing there may still be hope for them, Wentworth pens Anne a letter confessing that he’s still in love with her. “You pierce my soul. I am half agony, half hope,” he writes. After reading it, a very shaken Anne begs off socializing on account of illness and runs into Wentworth on her way home. The two discuss all their heretofore unspoken feelings and eventually get engaged.

Although Anne and Wentworth do live happily ever after in Austen’s original ending, the way it ultimately transpires is completely different. Basically, Admiral Croft waylays Anne as she’s passing by and insists that she stop in to call upon his wife. Inside, however, she finds Wentworth, who tells her that the Crofts heard she was betrothed to Mr. Elliot and are willing to give up Kellynch Hall so the soon-to-be-newlyweds can move in posthaste. Once Anne informs Wentworth that the rumors of her betrothal are untrue, the two reveal their love for each other.

Austen’s nephew James Edward Austen-Leigh printed this “cancelled chapter” in his 1869 biography A Memoir of Jane Austen, explaining that the author “thought it tame and flat, and was desirous of producing something better.” So she tossed out that chapter 10 and replaced it with two new ones. In early editions of Persuasion, they’re chapters 10 and 11 of the second volume; in today’s single-volume versions, they’re chapters 22 and 23. She also rewrote the following (and final) chapter, though without changing much.

6. Some of Austen’s original Persuasion manuscript still exists.

jane austen's persuasion original manuscript
The first page of Jane Austen's "cancelled" chapter 10. / British Library // Public Domain

It’s exciting enough that those two discarded chapters survived and are free to read in full online. What’s even more noteworthy is that the manuscript fragments themselves, bearing Austen’s tidy cursive and many crossings-out, still exist today. According to the British Library, which houses the artifacts, they’re “the only surviving manuscript pages of a novel Jane Austen planned and completed for publication.”

7. One early critic took issue with the supposed moral of the story.

In an era when the decision to marry involved many people and no shortage of strategy, not everyone appreciated Persuasion’s tacit message that when it came to tying the knot, young lovers should maybe just trust their gut. 

Persuasion “contains parts of very great merit,” one reviewer wrote in an 1818 issue of The British Critic. “[A]mong them, however, we certainly should not number its moral, which seems to be, that young people should always marry according to their own inclinations and upon their own judgment” in order to avoid “years of misery.” Real-world couples, the writer explained, can hardly count on things working out as well as they do in novels.

8. Persuasion is a plot device in The Lake House.

In the 2006 fantasy romance The Lake House, Kate (Sandra Bullock) and Alex (Keanu Reeves) fall in love, though they somehow live two years apart in time and can only correspond by leaving letters in the mailbox of an enchanted lake house. Persuasion—Kate’s favorite book—features in a few pivotal scenes. 

One is when Kate, from the future, tells Alex to collect the copy she once left at a train station. He does, but her train pulls away just a moment before he can return it to her. Later, Alex runs into Kate (still two years away from becoming his pen pal) at her birthday party, and asks her, apropos of nothing, if she’s read Persuasion. She delivers a brief monologue on how the book is about two would-be lovers who meet at the wrong time and, after reconnecting years later, must determine if it’s too late to rekindle their romance. “It’s about waiting,” she says.

While the film isn’t based on the book—it’s actually a remake of a 2000 South Korean movie called Il Mare—critics have acknowledged the thematic similarities between the two, and it’s clear that Persuasion was chosen as Kate’s favorite book to highlight them.

9. Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason was loosely inspired by Persuasion.

It’s a truth universally acknowledged that author Helen Fielding “stole,” in her own words, the plot of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice for her 1996 book Bridget Jones’s Diary (which in 2001 became a now-classic romantic comedy. It’s slightly less well-known that Fielding drew from Persuasion for the 1999 sequel, Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason. Bridget Jones (Renée Zellweger) and Mark Darcy Colin Firth) are Anne Elliot and Captain Frederick Wentworth, respectively. Mark's gorgeous assistant Rebecca (Jacinda Barrett) is Fielding’s answer to Austen’s Louisa Musgrove, whom Wentworth seems destined to marry; and Fielding’s Giles Benwick (David Verrey) is Austen’s grieving captain James Benwick, who does marry Louisa. 

“I borrowed quite a bit from Persuasion for this book too,” Fielding explained in an interview. “Anne Wentworth was persuaded out of a relationship by her elders. Bridget is persuaded out of a relationship by—ironically enough—too many self-help books about how to improve your relations.”

10. Some Janeites aren’t happy with the latest adaptation of Persuasion.

Persuasion has several screen adaptations to its name, beginning with the 1960 BBC miniseries starring Daphne Slater and Paul Daneman. Then came a 1971 miniseries with Ann Firbank and Bryan Marshall, followed by a 1995 movie with Amanda Root and Ciarán Hinds. Sally Hawkins and Rupert Penry-Jones also brought Anne and Wentworth to life in a 2007 TV movie

The latest adaptation, a feature film set to hit Netflix on July 15, 2022, stars Dakota Johnson and Cosmo Jarvis as the romantic leads and a supporting cast including Henry Golding, Richard E. Grant, and more. Despite its historically accurate setting, this Persuasion has a much more modern tone; Johnson’s Anne, for example, cheekily breaks the fourth wall in a manner reminiscent of Phoebe Waller-Bridge's Fleabag

The trailer provoked criticism from Jane Austen fans (a.k.a. Janeites), who were quick to point out that Austen’s Persuasion isn’t a romantic comedy with a goofy, irreverent heroine. Anne Elliot, though intelligent and emotionally astute, is also introverted and melancholy—much more plagued than entertained by the social dynamics that rule her life as an unmarried 27-year-old woman. To the uninitiated, Netflix’s Persuasion might just seem like a great way to pass the time until the next Bridgerton season arrives. But to readers who have long appreciated the main character’s gloomy complexities, a jejune line like “Now we’re worse than exes. We’re friends”—which Johnson utters in the trailer—falls somewhere between a disappointment and a downright betrayal.

As Vulture critic Kathryn VanArendonk put it for NPR, “Persuasion is an incredibly sad, personal, introspective, prickly novel, and that trailer just really does not feel like the Persuasion that I think fans of that novel know and love.”

facebooktwitterreddit