Jane Austen and the Fiction of Her Time

By Mary Waldron | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 6
Rationality and rebellion: 'Persuasion' and
the model girl

Of all six completed novels Persuasion most resists a late twentiethcentury reader's attempts to exonerate Austen from charges of prescriptiveness and didacticism. If Anne Elliot was 'almost too good' for the author, a reading based on an assumption of Austen's attachment to conventional contemporary wisdom will certainly leave her too good for us. 1 Marilyn Butler, among others, avers that Anne comes near to being dangerously perfect' and much modern criticism finds her somewhat tediously fault-free. 2 Curiously, though, it is the one work of Austen's which attracted prompt contemporary criticism on moral grounds; in 1818 the following was included in a review in The British Critic:

[The novel] contains parts of very great merit; among them, however, 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 judgement; for that if in consequence of listening to grave counsels, they defer their marriage, till they have wherewith to live upon, they will be laying the foundation for years of misery, such as only the heroes and heroines of novels can reasonably hope ever to see the end of. 3

These two attitudes, nearly two hundred years apart, provide us with a bewildering paradox is the novel supporting or rejecting contemporary rules of conduct? What was Austen up to in Persuasion? Various answers have been put forward; like Mansfield Park it continues to provoke explanations, if not apologies, for its moral stance most often critics find something wrong with it, some failure of coherence or consistency. If we examine the novel within the framework of the present study, we should be able to come close to an answer to the questions surrounding Persuasion without implying that Austen somehow did not quite achieve her aim. 4 The five other novels, and the fragments, have all manoeuvred among available stereotypes to find a new way of presenting in fiction the problems of

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