Love and Marriage
In Persuasion, marriage is not just a relationship based on love between a man and a woman. In fact, such a marriage is the exception rather than the rule. As the daughter of a landed baronet, Anne Elliot and her sisters must marry within certain social parameters: their suitors must be of a certain social class and breeding, and they must have the prospect of money, either through inheritance or through their own successes. Charles Musgrove, for example, is a gentleman and is an acceptable mate for Mary because, while he has no title, he does stand to inherit his father’s considerable estate. Elizabeth sets her sights on Mr. Elliot because he is a gentleman with impeccable manners and breeding, and he will inherit Kellynch estate from her father. Anne, on the other hand, was discouraged from marrying the young Captain Wentworth because he did not come from the upper class, nor had he yet made his fortune. Only later, when he returns from war as a respected and wealthy naval officer, is he acceptable to Anne’s family.
Love, of course, has little to do with such marriages. Sir Walter’s marriage to Anne’s mother was one of social expectation rather than love; her death hardly leaves him bereft. Charles and Mary exist in a state of mutual acceptance rather than passionate love; indeed, they seem almost to dislike one another. Lady Russell’s marriage left her a wealthy widow, while Mrs. Smith’s marriage to a man of breeding and wealth—but no sense—left her a poor widow. While Mrs. Smith loved her husband, that love was not enough to keep her secure, and in Austen’s society, marriage is desirable for a woman to feel secure from both poverty and social censure as “old maids.”
Some marriages in Persuasion, however, are based on love above all else. Admiral and Mrs. Croft admire one another exceedingly, and they behave like best friends; they are so devoted to one another that Mrs. Croft has even lived aboard ship with her husband. Captain Harville and his wife live simply, but comfortably, with one another in Lyme, having withstood his absences while at sea. Anne cannot help but see these examples of naval marriages that have succeeded, despite the trials of separation and anxiety that come with such marriages. Love, she sees, is what keeps those couples strong.
Drawing strength from examples of good marriages—and taking lessons from the bad marriages—around her, Anne accepts Wentworth’s second proposal because she is convinced that love is the most important ingredient in a marriage. And luckily for her, Wentworth is a man able to offer her security as well as an acceptable social status as the wife of a naval officer.
Persuasion is a novel about the power of persuasion in its many forms. One form of persuasion is that of the strong persuading the weak. Anne as a young woman finds it impossible to resist the persuasion of her family and Lady Russell, who do not wish her to marry Wentworth. Her gentle disposition and moderate looks have not earned her any power in the Elliot family; she is virtually invisible to her father and Elizabeth. To go against their wishes would have been disastrous for Anne, who might have been disowned by her family. Lady Russell is not only a domineering woman, but also a reminder of Anne’s beloved mother. She holds the sway of a mother over a daughter, and to go against her sensible advice is unthinkable to the young Anne. Only when she is older and has suffered for her decision is Anne able to stand up to her family and Lady Russell.
Other characters are the victims of their own persuasions—of their own perceptions of truth. Sir Walter and Elizabeth believe the world revolves around them, and they consequently do not see that they are not, in fact, the center of the universe for others. Elizabeth is persuaded that she deserves to marry Mr. Elliot, yet when that gentleman has other ideas, she cannot allow herself to accept any other man as husband; Mr. Elliot fits her concept of herself. Sir Walter is persuaded that he is of such consequence that he is a model for others, that others expect him to maintain a certain standard of living because they must look up to him. His vanity blinds him to the fact that his debt is not a model of behavior to others but a model of disgrace. His vanity also allows him to be persuaded by those who wish to use and deceive him: Mrs. Clay and Mr. Elliot. For Sir Walter and Elizabeth, self-persuasion is a form of self-delusion. Captain Wentworth is so persuaded that a woman should be forthright and sure of herself that he almost makes the mistake of marrying headstrong and foolish Louisa Musgrove. He misjudges Anne because he is persuaded she is weak and incapable of true love for him—until Anne persuades him otherwise.
The way in which Anne persuades Wentworth that she does indeed love him and can be strong in her love is another form of persuasion: that which is conveyed without spoken words. Anne must signal her strength to Wentworth through example. Her cool head in the midst of Louisa’s accident is that of a strong woman. Her bravery in speaking to him in front of her family at the concert is meant to signal that she is now not so easily persuaded by her family. Her intelligence in speaking to others so that he might hear her feelings on love and commitment also signals to him that she is steadfast in her love for him. Wentworth, too, must persuade Anne that he forgives her and still loves her—without actually telling her so. Social circumstances prevent the two of them from being alone together. He therefore resorts to slipping her a letter that conveys his feelings; he allows his acceptance of her family’s invitation to their rooms to show that he intends to court Anne despite their possible objections. Both Anne and Wentworth risk being mistaken in their persuasions about one another, yet that is a risk each is willing to take for love.