Two hundred years ago, in December 1817, the last finished novel by Jane Austen was published posthumously. Despite its heartfelt writing and compelling characters, Persuasion has never carried the same cultural weight as Austen’s other novels. While the 1990s in particular brought Jane Austen into popular culture, with definitive film versions of Pride and Prejudice, Emma, and Sense and Sensibility, and even spoofs like Clueless, the film rendition of Persuasion didn’t take hold in the popular imagination with quite the same alacrity, perhaps because of its older heroine. In the 1990s, the median age for women getting married was still under twenty-four, the age group in which all of Austen’s heroines fall except for one. At twenty-seven, Persuasion’s Anne Elliot is Austen’s oldest heroine by five years, the next being Jane Bennet at twenty-two. But now, it’s 2017, and the median age for women getting married is nearly twenty-seven, an historical high. It is at last Anne Elliot’s time to shine, and she has a thing or two to teach young adults today about love, maturity, and the art of patience.
At twenty-seven, Anne Elliot is single and not ready to mingle. She was once engaged to and very much in love with Frederick Wentworth, but was persuaded by her family and friends that she was too young and he was not a worthy candidate for her affections. At nineteen, she broke off the engagement, and hasn’t loved another man since. Today, we might call Anne and Wentworth soul mates: “No two hearts so open, no tastes so similar, no feelings so in unison, no countenances so beloved.” To marry a soul mate or not marry at all is an exceedingly modern notion, as Aziz Ansari attests in his book, Modern Romance. Readers today, then, can sympathize with Anne’s predicament, as many are continually swiping left and right on Tinder in a desperate search for “the one.”
Yet, Persuasion shows that, even with soul mates, love is rife with miscommunication and difficulties. When she ends the engagement, Anne believes the parting is to “his advantage” but Wentworth does not feel that way and is still angry and unforgiving when he returns eight years later. Despite having “feelings so in unison” they do not understand each other, and misread each other’s behavior repeatedly. Captain Wentworth even has to clarify in his written declaration of love to Anne, “Have you not seen this? Can you fail to have understood my wishes?” Yet, in the face of miscommunication, Anne learns to never compromise herself in the pursuit and confusion of romance. As young adults wait longer to get married, they need Anne’s “firmness of character” to handle the ghosting, serial first dates, and hook-up culture that lead nowhere.
Yet, by comparing Anne to any of her family members or even to Captain Wentworth, Persuasion shows that age does not always beget maturity. Even at nineteen, Anne displays a maturity of mind and heart that many don’t possess at twenty-seven. Although adults today marry later for various reasons, including college education, career goals, financial security, and even fear, none of these guarantee maturity or readiness for marriage. When Captain Wentworth returns, he is older, successful, wealthy, and yet is, at times, still quite immature. Wentworth obliviously plays on the affections of Louisa Musgrove, stubbornly clings to his anger toward Anne, and pontificates about what makes for an appealing woman, but he says nothing about what he offers. Sound like any young man (or woman) you have known or dated? Meanwhile, Anne is handling medical emergencies, managing family and money matters, and visiting homebound friends. Perhaps, then, young adults today need to take a closer look at the activities they do and company they keep to determine their readiness for marriage, not simply the year in which they were born.
Throughout the novel, in the face of heartbreak, anger, and family drama, Anne Elliot never loses patience. She doesn’t panic about finding a husband, or even about trying to get Wentworth back. She doesn’t force Wentworth to forgive her. She doesn’t let her family’s absurdities influence her temper or her agenda. After being persuaded at nineteen, Anne learns the difficult lesson to always be true to herself no matter who or what tempts her otherwise, even inheriting her family home Kellynch through an advantageous marriage. Anne is able to go about her day caring for others without caring what people think of her. This maturity—not wealth, success, or fear—should resonate with young adults today and is one of the advantages of marrying later. Hooking up and swiping feverishly probably won’t cultivate that maturity; helping others (and reading Persuasion) might.
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