How Jane Austen’s Last Completed Novel Blows Up the Romantic Comedy
by Tom Storch
Jane Austen is a paradoxical figure. She died in 1817, yet her work is still widely read and frequently adapted. She blurs the line between realism and genre fiction. She is a master of the marriage plot, but she creates characters with such psychological specificity, that their actions always seem organic. It makes it possible not to notice when Austen uses these characters to execute dramatic conventions. She is an incisive and hilarious writer, however at the same time a sense of sadness and repercussion underlie the humor. While an Austen novel guarantees all the trappings of a romantic comedy, she also uses the genre as a means to explore the serious issues of real life. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Persuasion, Austen’s last complete novel, published five months after her death (It also seems to be having something of a moment—there are two movies and a play in the works).
The protagonist, Anne Elliot, symbolizes age and regret. At 27, she is the eldest of Austen’s heroines and she has not led a happy life. She has spent her entire adulthood so far at home with a ridiculous father, Sir Walter, and a selfish sister, Elizabeth, having lost her wise and compassionate mother as a teenager. Anne once came close to marriage eight years prior to the story when she nearly accepted the proposal of a charming young naval officer, Frederick Wentworth, until her mother-surrogate and only friend, Lady Russell, convinced her to refuse. Now Anne lives in the emotional ruins of that shattered romance, while her father and sister deplete away the family inheritance and slight her company in favor of the scheming social climber, Mrs. Clay.
When the family is forced to rent out their ancestral estate, Anne goes to visit another sister, Mary—who is as equally selfish as Elizabeth, but also a hypochondriac—and Mary’s husband, Charles Musgrove (Years ago, Musgrove initially proposed to Anne and she declined, although Lady Russell approved of that match). While staying here, Anne encounters again the same officer from her past, now Captain Wentworth, returned from a long stint of duty, promoted up through the ranks and much wealthier (since at the time a British commander could make a fortune by looting enemy ships). However, Austen is not interested in giving us a typical reunion—at least not yet—and neither Anne nor Wentworth acknowledge their history to each other, nor do they hardly exchange any words at all. Even worse, Wentworth treats Anne with “cold politeness” while he mercilessly flirts with Mary’s two sisters-in-law, Henrietta and Louisa, in front of her. He has returned home “ready to make a foolish match” and, still bitter from Anne’s refusal, has a heart open “for any pleasing young woman who [comes] in his way, excepting Anne Elliot.” This is a particularly cruel premise for a romance and it also stands as an early example of cringe comedy, but Austen invests the situation with pathos by making Anne so naturally reticent that she bears the ignominy in silence.
Similarly, loss and decay permeate the world that surrounds Anne. Almost all of the action takes place during autumn and winter and Austen correlates the conditions of the landscape to Anne’s internal condition. Right at the start, Austen tells us that Anne’s “bloom had vanished early,” an autumnal image that she frequently recurs to when describing Anne. Austen shows us this process of internalization explicitly as well. In one scene, while out on a walking party and trying to ignore the “lively chat” between Wentworth and the Musgrove sisters, Anne endeavors to derive pleasure from “the view of the…tawny leaves and withered hedges, and from repeating to herself some of the few thousand poetical descriptions extant of autumn,” essentially forcing her conscious to mirror the faded states she sees.
Adding darker tones still is the wide array of misfortune that Anne encounters in secondary characters. Mrs. Smith, a widow and an invalid, who, deprived of all other amusement, lives for gossip, probably has a more dire state of circumstances than any other figure in the Austen canon and the inclusion of her throws Anne’s comparatively minor suffering into perspective. In fact, widows and widowers show up all over the story. No fewer than seven appear, though they all miss their departed spouses to different degrees. Death is everywhere in Persuasion. In the novel’s most callous passage, Austen in the third-person steps forward to trash the memory of one of the Musgrove sons who enlisted in the navy and died at sea, calling him “stupid and unmanageable on shore” and saying that his family “had the good fortune to lose him before he reached his twentieth year.”
It is another odd choice on Austen’s part to so fully imbed the navy into the fibers of a romantic comedy. By the time she wrote Persuasion, Austen had already written many other military figures, especially in Pride and Prejudice, where an army battalion stationed within walking distance of the Bennet estate provides the younger daughters with entertainment. However, in Pride and Prejudice, the army sits on the periphery—only one of the leads, the scoundrel, Mr. Wickham, actually serves in it—and the presence of red coats represents more of an aesthetic flair than an integral part of the action. It accentuates the same conceit as Much Ado About Nothing, that romance is a sort of metaphorical battlefield. Whereas in Persuasion, the officers sit at the forefront and the navy is indispensable to the plot (Two of Austen’s brothers served in the navy and this personal experience likely informs some of the elements).
While we never leave land, while no war happens on the pages of this novel and none of the officers ever tell battle tales, Austen explores extensively the effect that the profession has on the spouses and romantic partners of officers and uses the off-stage battles as a counterpoint to the lives of those at home. One has to imagine that some of Lady Russell’s distaste for Wentworth comes from “anxiety attending his profession.” But instead of exploring Wenthworth’s anger at the rejection, Austen focuses on Anne’s tumultuous journey in giving him up. She even emphasizes the toll it takes on Anne by describing the ordeal in martial terms, saying she faced “Such opposition” from her family and connections that was “more than Anne could combat.” Afterward, Anne can only reconcile herself to the rejection by framing her actions as self-sacrificial, choosing to believe that it was for “[Wentworth’s] good, even more than her own,” since, as she reasons later on in the story, “with difficulties, and privations, and dangers enough to struggle with…It would be hard, indeed” for a young officer, “if woman’s feelings were to be added to all this.”
But to contrast the negative impact that the navy can have on a relationship, Austen presents us with another couple on the opposite end of the spectrum: the Admiral and Mrs. Croft, Wentworth’s sister and brother-in-law, who conveniently are renting out Anne’s family estate. Completely compatible and married many years, Mrs. Croft has sailed all over the world with the Admiral and says that “The happiest part of my life has been spent aboard a ship,” claiming that the only time she felt “unwell, or had any ideas of danger, was the winter that [she] passed by [herself] at Deal when the Admiral…was in the North Seas.”
Austen is again playing with a conceit similar to that of Much Ado, except here the battlefield metaphor extends far past romance. Austen implies that the lives of Regency women, societally oppressed, dependent on their families, with difficult decisions to make and a narrow range of options to choose from, is just as treacherous as actual battle, if not more. Austen is not being flippant in suggesting this. Anne, the most rational character in the novel, vocalizes the same argument. “We live at home, quiet, confined,” she says. “Our feelings prey upon us.” And Austen lets us see the lasting scars of this internal trauma by contrasting Anne’s quiet acceptance of the world’s indifference with Wentworth, who, though having lately fought in actual warfare, has returned home bent of frivolity. Looking at these two, it is not hard to imagine why Mrs. Croft prefers the seafaring life to the solitude of home.
Importantly, as well, the incorporation of the military into the action and the way it points to the very real dangers of home prepare us for the physical trauma which occurs in Persuasion. In none of the other five major novels does Austen depict anything resembling violence. She writes about illness, but it is always recovered from. She shows us some slapstick comedy, like Marianne’s stumble down the hill in Sense and Sensibility, but that pales in comparison to what happens in Persuasion. Initially, Mary’s son suffers “a bad fall” that leaves him with a dislocated collar-bone and “such injury received in the back, as roused the most alarming ideas.” Mary, at once, falls into “hysterics,” but fortunately, Anne has the presence of mind to do “every thing at once [sic].” When the apothecary comes, it turns out the boy is not as injured as Mary first feared and they can “eat their dinner in tolerable ease of mind,” but a real moment of panic is attached to this moment. Austen uses it to expand the range of potential incidents possible in the novel and to set the tone for the much more perilous fall to follow.
Later, the party will move from the Musgrove estate to the seaside village of Lyme to visit some acquaintances of Wentworth. By this point, Wentworth’s flirtation with the Musgrove sisters has advanced to a new stage and the party generally considers him to have serious intentions on Louisa, whose primary characteristic is her headstrongedness, or “decision and firmness” as Wentworth phrases it, clearly contrasting these qualities in his head to what he considers Anne’s “weakness and timidity.” This particular trait comes into play on their final day in town, while the party takes a walk on the Lyme cobb, a stone walkway that runs along the coast. When “There [is] too much wind to make the high part of the Cobb pleasant for the ladies, and they [agree] to get down the steps to the lower,” everyone is “contented to pass quietly and carefully down the steep flight, excepting Louisa; she must be jumped down them by Captain Wentworth,” or picked up and carried down. In a similar way, she requires Wentworth to jump her “In all their walks…[over] the stiles; the sensation [is] delightful to her.” Although Wentworth hesitates on this present occasion due to the “hardness of the pavement,” he relents and carries her “safely down.” Then, “Immediately, to show her enjoyment, [Louisa runs] up the steps to be jumped down again.”
“He advised her against it, thought the jar too great; but no, he reasoned and talked in vain, she smiled and said, ‘I am determined I will:’ he put out his hands; she was too precipitate by half a second, she fell on the pavement on the Lower Cobb, and was taken up lifeless! There was no wound, no blood, no visible bruise; but her eyes were closed, she breathed not, her face was like death.”
The danger of this scene is apparent from the start. Even in his frivolous state, Wentworth knows the first jumping is a bad idea. And while the fact that Louisa so heedlessly attempts a second jump before Wentworth can catch her does smack a little of the same slapstick spirit that informs Marianne’s stumble, Marianne just suffers a sprained ankle (her reckoning is still forthcoming in that book). The deadly consequence of this fall is immediate. It is also impossible to ignore the metaphorical implications of a sexual impropriety.
Of course, bound by the constraints of her time as well as by Austen’s own sense of decorum, there are no literally racy scenes in any of the major novels. But Austen does make the sexuality of characters felt through the implications of certain actions. Louisa’s enjoyment in being jumped shows that she derives more pleasure from it than is entirely appropriate and hints at how the action serves as a kind of preliminary stand-in for sex. Austen’s deftness at choosing concrete images that evoke the underlying erotic tension of a scene is in its way an early premonition of the famed “Lubitsch touch” of classic Hollywood filmmaker Ernst Lubitsch, whose romantic comedies slipped sex past strict censors in the form of visual double entendres. But while Lubitsch’s metaphors are winking and intended as playful, when Austen employs sexual imagery, it is only partially a joke.
At the same time, Austen uses Louisa’s fall to convey the severe consequences that can come from sex in the Regency era, especially and primarily for women. Beyond the obvious Edenic associations with this scene, there is a quite literal evocation of the fallen women, or taking a fall in status in society due to a perceived moral transgression. George Eliot employs a similar conceit in The Mill on the Floss, when she lets her heroine, Maggie Tulliver, lose track of time and get carried too far downstream alone on a boat rowed by a handsome young man, who is also engaged to her cousin. But the metaphor is muddled there, since Eliot makes it clear that the two never actually consummate the relationship, whereas Persuasion, by only presenting us with the visual action, allows the reader to speculate as to what it implies about the characters’ other actions.
Louisa’s injury is significant for more than symbolic reasons though. This scene disrupts the current course of the plot and stands as a turning point for the novel. Louisa will recover, eventually, but it takes many weeks and she comes out on the other side a more sober and serious person. It also causes Wentworth to rethink the manner in which he has been conducting himself, leading him to leave the Musgrove party and tacitly break off the flirtation with Louisa. After this point, the action will switch locations to the city of Bath, another male lead, Anne’s cousin, the questionably charming Mr. Elliot will arrive on the scene (we’ve already a caught a glimpse of him in Lyme) and, most importantly, Anne will come into her own as the rightful center of story. In the immediate aftermath of Louisa’s fall, when everyone freezes with panic and even Wentworth, “with a face as pallid as” Louisa’s, is unable to act, only Anne proves capable of conducting herself with “strength and zeal,” even working to “assuage the feelings of Captain Wentworth,” who seems “to look to her for directions.” We as the reader have already seen how Anne reacts to distressing circumstances during the fall of Mary’s son, but in this scene, Wentworth gets to see the valor in Anne that he has denied in his bitterness. So in a large way, Louisa’s concussion ultimately sets the stage for Anne’s eventual happy ending, a kind of fairy tale twist straight out of the Brothers Grimm.
This incident serves as a particularly morbid example of how Austen takes the conventions of the romantic comedy and flips them on their head for her own purposes, but it is just one of the many instances that make up Persuasion. The heroine, while smart, good-hearted and even pretty, also represents the opposite of conventional glamor and charm. She feels the prime of her life has passed her by and most characters generally ignore her for the first half of the book. The world she occupies is full of death and loss. War lurks at the edges of the story, but all the bravery and sacrifice happen at home and largely receive no recognition. Grievous injuries are sustained that have lasting consequences. These are the stakes at play here.
Yes, there is a happy ending, but unlike in Austen’s other novels, it is not unequivocal. She awards Anne with Wentworth, but shades the marriage. Though a perfect match in all other respects, Austen also takes pains to note, “the dread of a future war [is] all that [can] dim [Anne’s] sunshine.” Anne glories in “being a sailor’s wife, but must pay the tax of quick alarm” should Wentworth be called away to war, as is the fate of all sailors’ wives. Austen purposely undercuts the happy ending she creates. She lets Anne have Wentworth, but also makes it clear that he can be snatched away at a moment’s notice. It is almost a half happy ending, or an ending as happy as possible under the circumstances.
In this point, more than any other, Austen subverts the romantic-comedic structure. In fact, this qualifying of the happy ending, in combination with the dark elements displayed throughout, put into question Persuasion’s placement in the genre at all. Instead, Austen bends the conventions so far that I think it fits more comfortably under the label of tragicomedy. Shakespeare flirts with this genre in late-era romances like The Winter’s Tale, which starts as a domestic drama and ends as a surrealist comedy. But Austen advances the structure by more fluidly mixing the two elements throughout and, in doing so, lays the groundwork for the realist social dramas of Eliot, Henry James and Edith Wharton, who all use narrative contrivances and romance as a means to explore darker truths about human nature and who usually eschew happy endings in favor of bittersweet sticking points.
We can sense in Persuasion not a boredom with the romantic comedy on Austen’s part, but rather a desire to expand the limits of what it can do. A major appeal of the genre will always come from wish fulfillment and Persuasion delivers that, but in the most grounded and truthful way possible. Austen tempers the happy ending. It is tenuous and fleeting. You have to wonder where Austen would have gone next if she had finished another novel.
Tom Storch was born in Denver, Colorado and lives in Brooklyn, New York. He has a BFA in Creative Writing from CUNY Brooklyn College and an MFA from The Writer’s Foundry at St. Joseph’s College. He currently co-hosts “Second Impressions: The Pride and Prejudice Podcast,” a chapter-by-chapter breakdown of Jane Austen’s famous novel.