Issue 46: What's in a Name? Is 'Persuasion' the Right Title?

MONICA FAIRVIEW MUSES ON THE TITLE OF JANE’S SIXTH AND FINAL NOVEL.

As an author myself, I find choosing the title of a novel very tricky, and I invariably regret my titles when it’s too late to change them. 

I can only imagine the responsibility Henry Austen felt when he decided to change the title of Jane Austen’s posthumous publication from ‘The Elliots’ (Jane Austen’s title) to ‘Persuasion’. Was he right to do it?

A cursory look at the number of times the words ‘persuasion/persuade’ are mentioned (approximately 225 times) in the novel reveals that Henry Austen – who did not have access to searchable e-texts – was perfectly justified in choosing it. However, I can’t help wondering whether biographical issues in Jane Austen’s life influenced his choice. Did someone – her sister Cassandra, perhaps – persuade Jane Austen to give up a love match that was considered inappropriate? Did Jane Austen come to regret it? It is intriguing to speculate, given the sense of regret that pervades the novel, but it is, of course, only speculation. 

 Henry Austen

Henry Austen

Back to ‘persuasion’ as a title, then. To us as twentieth-century readers, ‘persuasion’ inevitably carries the connotations of arguments lost and won, of political speeches, and of falling under the influence of someone else. The title, in our modern sense, immediately puts Anne Elliot at a disadvantage, spotlighting a mistake committed years earlier. As a young woman of nineteen, Anne allowed herself to be persuaded not to marry the man she loved. She now has to deal with the consequences. Having lost her bloom, she’s resigned to being an old maid at the grand old age of twenty-seven. She lives at the margins of everyone’s life, reduced to being ‘nobody … her word had no weight; her convenience was always to give way -- she was only Anne’. This is a heavy price to pay. Is being open to persuasion such a major flaw in Anne’s character that she deserves her tragic downfall? 

At first glance, it may appear that Jane Austen is using Anne to critique the unhappy position of unmarried women in Regency England. However, Austen deliberately introduces a character that does not fit the stereotype. Anne’s older sister Elizabeth does not suffer the fate of an ‘old maid’. Her position in the household is assured. She is not expected to be at the beck and call of anyone in her family who needs assistance. Not only that, but she is in the position of appointing Mrs Clay as her companion. 

Why, then, does Anne submit to her situation? Is she really so incapable of standing up for herself? To see Anne that way is hardly flattering. I would argue instead that being of service to anyone who asks her may be an act of penance for that youthful mistake. It is her own self-inflicted punishment for submitting to someone else’s will – a kind of poetic justice. Has she persuaded herself that this is what she deserves?

There is another way of looking at ‘persuasion’ that might reframe Anne’s situation. According to the Oxford Dictionary, ‘persuasion’ can be defined as ‘A belief or set of beliefs, especially religious or political ones.’ From this perspective, we can see ‘persuasion’ as a reflection of the ‘firmness’ of Anne’s character rather than a weakness. Was Anne convinced – of the persuasion – that marriage with Wentworth was not a good choice? What if her feelings of regret came not from that moment of external ‘persuasion,’ but because she did not have enough faith in Wentworth to think him capable of achieving the things he promised? What if she decided prudence and steadiness of purpose was preferable to marrying for love?

 A first edition of  Persuasion .  Credit: Bauman Rare Books

A first edition of Persuasion. Credit: Bauman Rare Books

While we as twentieth-century readers may find it difficult to empathise with the idea of marrying sensibly, we have to remember that Anne had experienced first-hand what could happen with a person who was not financially ‘prudent’. Anne’s mother, we know, had sacrificed her happiness to a ‘youthful infatuation’ and had suffered from Sir Walter’s lack of fiscal responsibility. It did not take much on Lady Russell’s part to convince Anne that it was a bad idea to be ‘sunk by [Wentworth] into a state of most wearing, anxious, youth-killing dependence.’ That had been her mother’s destiny, a destiny that brought her to an early grave. 

The portrait Jane Austen gives us of young Wentworth is very clear. In a few sentences, she outlines the reasons Anne could not have married him at the time. When they first met, he was unemployed, and ‘he had nothing to do’. To make matters worse, ‘Captain Wentworth had no fortune. He had been lucky in his profession; but spending freely, what had come freely, had realized nothing.’ The carelessness with which he had spent his income did not bode well. At the time, with Sir Walter having refused to support the young couple, Wentworth’s situation did not inspire faith. The narrator continues: he ‘had nothing but himself to recommend him, and no hopes of attaining affluence but in the chances of a most uncertain profession, and no connexions to secure even his farther rise in that profession’. The repetition of the word ‘nothing’ here indicates the helplessness of the young couple’s situation. Despite her love for Wentworth, Anne was too ‘sensible’ not to realise that having ‘nothing’ was not a recipe for happiness.  

Ironically, Anne’s rejection was, in fact, the making of Wentworth, as he himself admits at dinner at Uppercross. ‘It was a great object with me, at that time, to be at sea: a very great object; I wanted to be doing something.’ In hindsight, of course, it is easy for Anne to regret not having believed in him, now that he has returned a rich man, but would he have been as successful if they had married? Saddled with a wife and children, would he have been able to stay away long enough to be able to win the prize money that makes him able to support her?

The importance of setting the narrative in the present (eight years later) is that it is retrospective, where Anne’s initial ‘persuasion’ can be re-examined under different circumstances. The novel, to a large extent, is about Anne and Wentworth grasping that the burden of guilt is not hers alone. A particularly revealing moment comes towards the end, when Wentworth realises that the responsibility for their unhappiness falls on him as well. 

a question has suggested itself, whether there may not have been one person more my enemy even than that lady [Lady Russell]? My own self. Tell me if, when I returned to England, in the year eight, with a few thousand pounds, and was posted into the Laconia, if I had then written to you, would you have answered my letter? Would you, in short, have renewed the engagement then?... I was proud, too proud to ask again. I did not understand you.
— Capt. Wentworth, Persuasion

In this moment of insight, Wentworth shifts the blame for their unhappiness to himself, recognising in himself a failure of understanding, and affirming that there was far more to Anne’s decision than meets the eye.  

By looking a pivotal scene of the novel – the scene at the Cobb, where Louisa falls down the steps – we can see the disadvantages to being young and inexperienced. Symbolically, Louisa at twenty is Anne as she was at nineteen – impetuous, headstrong and flirting with Wentworth and potential disaster. Louisa’s fall is emblematic of what could have happened to Anne had she not had the firmness of character to put an end to the relationship and realise that marrying Wentworth was not financially viable. There is also something of the young Wentworth in Louisa. His younger self, like Louisa, was ‘eager,’ and ‘indiscrete’ and ‘improper.’ The scene contrasts Louisa’s impulsive behaviour with Anne’s prudence in not jumping into marrying Wentworth. Wentworth now finally realises that there is ‘no one so proper, so capable as Anne’, which is exactly why she did not think marrying him initially was a good idea. 

In conclusion, by calling the novel ‘Persuasion’, Henry Austen placed too much emphasis on the beginning of the novel – the ‘mistake’ – rather than on the understanding reached by both characters and their acceptance that Anne, being the ‘capable’ Anne that she is, could not have made any other decision. There are other words that occur more frequently than ‘persuasion,’ in the novel, words like ‘happiness/happy,’ ‘right’ and ‘hope’, as well as the overarching theme of vanity and pride. Perhaps Jane Austen’s chosen title, ‘The Elliots’, though simpler, was more representative, and would have provided us with a more intricate view of Anne’s situation than the title ‘Persuasion’ ever could. 

If I were to choose my own title for the novel, however, I would choose ‘Only Anne’ – but then, I always regret my titles. 

© Monica Fairview - author of ‘The Darcy Cousins,’ (Georgiana’s story), ‘The Other Mr. Darcy’ (Caroline Bingley’s story), and ‘Mysterious Mr. Darcy’, a Pride and Prejudice variation, among others.  

 
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Image credit: Julia B. Grantham