But Persuasion blows them out of the water. It’s the story of the noble Anne Elliott and the dashing Frederick Wentworth, who were engaged to each other eight years previously. But Anne’s godmother convinced her to break off the engagement because of Wentworth’s lack of wealth and connections, so a heartbroken Wentworth left to make his fortune at sea.
Now he comes back a high-ranking officer, rich from his success in the war. Anne, meanwhile, is living in reduced circumstances because her careless baron father has incurred so many debts that he has to rent out the family estate. The tenants turn out to be Admiral Croft and his wife, who happens to be Captain Wentworth’s sister. So Anne and Frederick are thrown into each other’s company again, but they have both grown older, and in the case of Wentworth, jaded and bitter. He flirts with one of the eligible ladies in the area, Louisa Musgrove, to make Anne jealous. Because their engagement was short-lived and unannounced, no one else knows about their history. So in all these chance meetings, Anne has no choice but to suffer in silence. They are always civil to each other, but Anne suspects that Wentworth is developing feelings for Louisa.
A trip to Lyme with the Musgroves becomes the turning point for Wentworth and Anne. While walking along the pier, the careless Louisa tries to jump several steps into Wentworth’s arms, but hits her head against the stone and becomes unconscious. Everyone panics, except the steady Anne. She takes control of the situation and arranges things so Louisa can be brought back to safety immediately. She even offers to stay behind with the invalid while the rest of the party goes back home. All this makes Wentworth realize how amazing Anne is, and how foolish he was for even imagining that he can be with anyone else. He realizes that it was just his pride and anger that made him think he was over Anne.
After some time, Anne and Wentworth are thrown together again at an informal gathering at the Musgroves’ hotel. Anne is conversing with Wentworth’s friend, Captain Harville, while Wentworth sits nearby writing a business letter. Anne and Harville end up discussing relationships and fidelity, and Anne makes an emotional speech about how women who truly loved remain faithful even when they have been forgotten by the man they loved.
While all this is happening and Wentworth is supposedly writing his business letter, he finds the time to write what is probably the most romantic letter in literature. It’s so romantic that it is simply referred to as The Letter. Here it is in full, for your swooning pleasure:
I can listen no longer in silence. I must speak to you by such means as are within my reach. You pierce my soul. I am half agony, half hope. Tell me not that I am too late, that such precious feelings are gone for ever. I offer myself to you again with a heart even more your own than when you almost broke it, eight years and a half ago. Dare not say that man forgets sooner than woman, that his love has an earlier death. I have loved none but you. Unjust I may have been, weak and resentful I have been, but never inconstant. You alone have brought me to Bath. For you alone, I think and plan. Have you not seen this? Can you fail to have understood my wishes? I had not waited even these ten days, could I have read your feelings, as I think you must have penetrated mine. I can hardly write. I am every instant hearing something which overpowers me. You sink your voice, but I can distinguish the tones of that voice when they would be lost on others. Too good, too excellent creature! You do us justice, indeed. You do believe that there is true attachment and constancy among men. Believe it to be most fervent, most undeviating, in F. W.
I must go, uncertain of my fate; but I shall return hither, or follow your party, as soon as possible. A word, a look, will be enough to decide whether I enter your father’s house this evening or never.
He wrote this on the sly, in one go, with no do-overs or editing possible, and he came up with this!?! How amazing is that?
I’m sorry Darcy, but this beats even your confessional letter to Elizabeth.
Wentworth uses the old “leave-behind” technique to give his letter to Anne. He pretends to go but then comes back on the pretext of retrieving his gloves, and hands the letter to Anne. Suffice it to say, Anne and Wentworth reconcile, get married, and live happily ever after.
Persuasion may now be my favorite Austen. I know, I know! I can’t believe I’m saying that either, what with my annual reading of Pride and Prejudice. But here’s why. Aside from The Letter, the story of Anne and Wentworth is so different from Austen’s other works, where the heroine is young and meets her soulmate as the book progresses. In Persuasion, the hero and heroine meet each other off the page, and they already share a history that we don’t have access to. Secondly, they are both older than the usual protagonists, which gives the story a certain air of maturity and assuredness. There is none of the usual comedy of errors or meet-cutes here. We see the characters grow and develop so by the time they get together, the emotional payoff is made that much more satisfying.
Maybe that’s Persuasion‘s strength. Pride and Prejudice will always be a masterfully written novel, but Persuasion is all heart. It’s romantic, wistful, and comforting at the same time. This is definitely another Austen I will read again and again.
The Jane Austen project may have stalled, but it’s still going strong!