The critical tradition

Established approaches

While Persuasion is a novel popular with readers, some would argue it is the least popular of Jane Austen's novels. Indeed, it has not always attracted as much attention from literary critics as Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice or Emma. Nevertheless, by the 1940's, following Jane Austen's increased reputation as a novelist we can identify several established approaches to interpreting Persuasion.

Until about thirty years ago, the following ways of reading the novel were the most common:

  • As a realistic presentation of the country gentry and their everyday experiences
  • As a comedy of manners more sombre than Jane Austen's previous novels, in which human folly is exposed and the hero and heroine (in this case, to a much lesser degree) have to undergo moral growth before they can attain the fulfilment of marriage
  • As a Cinderella romance in which the heroine has to overcome the disapproval and uninterest of her relatives and friends and follow her own instincts to achieve reconciliation with her true love
  • As a critique of English society's reliance on inherited wealth as the determinant of an individual's status and value
  • As an exploration of the rise of the professional classes and the effect that had on individual economic and social status.

Initial reception of Persuasion

There was very little critical attention paid to Persuasion when it was first published, together with Northanger Abbey, in 1818. This is, in part, because novels were still generally regarded as an inferior form of writing. Reading them was considered a frivolous occupation mostly indulged in by women.

Positive reviews

The positive reviews praised Persuasion's realism, convincing characterisation and lack of overly dramatic and unrealistic events:

the delightful writer of the works now before us, will be one of the most popular of English novelists … She never operates among deep interests, uncommon characters, or vehement passions.
Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine
it has more of that tender and yet elevated kind of interest which is aimed at by the generality of novels, and in pursuit of which they never fail of running into Romantic extravagance: on the whole it is one of the most elegant fictions of common life we ever remember to have met with. Quarterly Review

These two reviews also comment generally that Jane Austen continues to uphold a Christian view of morality.

Negative reviews

Other critics found Persuasion to be inferior to Northanger Abbey due to Jane Austen's comment at the end of the novel which seems to question the role of obeying one's parents in marriage:

It is in every respect a much less fortunate performance than that which we have just been considering … 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 judgments
British Critic

Dear Aunt Jane…

Despite the publication of Persuasion and Northanger Abbey after Jane Austen's death, interest in her novels declined over the following fifty years and little was written about them:

  • In large part this was due to reviews written by Sir Walter Scott and Richard Whately, which made Jane Austen's books appealing to a cultivated literary few, but unappealing to the masses
  • It was also due to Victorian taste for exaggerated displays of emotion, which they did not encounter in Jane Austen's novels.

All this changed in 1870, when Jane Austen's nephew, James Edward Austen-Leigh published his Memoir of Jane Austen which caused a surge of interest in the novels, and particularly in Jane Austen herself:

  • Austen-Leigh's portrait of his aunt was a sentimental one, which emphasised her sweetness and goodness. This appealed to the Victorian desire for decency, gentility and virtue
  • His biography denied her sharp wit and unvarnished views of humanity's foibles
  • He emphasised the small world about which she wrote. He claimed her novels avoided subjects like politics, law and medicine
  • He assured readers that her style, content and themes were suitable for family reading
  • He described her as a woman who was content to fit her writing unobtrusively around her domestic duties
  • He portrayed her as modest about her writing and uninterested in making money from it.

Unfortunately, this overly rosy picture of Jane Austen's sweetness and Austen-Leigh's over-simplified approach to her writing gave her a reputation not quite true to life, which has been hard for subsequent critics to counteract. More positively, Austen-Leigh's biography coincided with a greater acceptance of the novel as a reputable literary form. Consequently, there was a rise in more intelligent and insightful criticism of the genre, including the novels of Jane Austen.

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