Rejection, Connection, and Persuasion

Jane Austen knew she was dying and wrote a novel about what is ultimately important in life.

Joey Goodall / 7.1.22

Jane Austen is known for her satire, her sly depictions of human nature, and wrapping entire plots of novels around catastrophic misunderstandings that can arise from something as small as an unintended glance or slip of the tongue, but are those the things that keep people coming back to her work? Are those the things that helped Netflix decide to base their latest blockbuster on a 205-year-old British novel? I don’t think those things are insignificant, nor is nostalgia or Anglophilia, but I think the real key to her enduring appeal is her emphasis on our longing for connection and our absolute fear of rejection.

Austen’s books are often categorized as novels of manners. Persuasion could be categorized that way, too. It is a detailed look at a specific social world, but it also seems to be saying that while following the mores and customs prized in such social worlds can be prudent, these things are ultimately meaningless. Protagonist Anne Elliot describes her distant cousin, heir presumptive to her family’s estate, and potential suitor, the following way:

Mr. Elliot was rational, discreet, polished – but he was not open. There was never any burst of feeling, any warmth of indignation or delight, at the evil or good of others. This, to Anne, was a decided imperfection. Her early impressions were incurable. She prized the frank, the open-hearted, the eager character beyond all others. Warmth and enthusiasm did captivate her still. She felt that she could so much more depend upon the sincerity of those who sometimes looked or said a careless or a hasty thing, than of those whose presence of mind never varied, whose tongue never slipped.

Anne knows that though Mr. Elliot has socially respectable qualities, and a match between the two of them would be financially advantageous, she could never be with him. She remembers what it was like to truly be in love, what it felt like to connect with someone on a soul-deep level. She remembers the relationship she had with Frederick Wentworth before she was persuaded to break their engagement because of Lady Russell’s (Anne’s deceased mother’s best friend) socioeconomic concerns for her. Although Anne understands the sense in Lady Russell’s advice, she nevertheless refuses to settle for anyone else in the intervening eight and a half years. Austen gives Anne this time to differentiate her from her younger heroines who are less aware that things can be taken from them, that our days on earth are numbered.

Persuasion was the last book Austen completed before her death at 41, and she knew she was dying as she was writing it. With imminent death comes a clarity of mind, or at least one that insists on remembering emotionally poignant moments from the distant past. Those who are dying do not dwell on their careers or the fancy gadgets they purchase. In the twilight of life, what comes to the fore is something else entirely. As Paul Zahl contended in his talk at this spring’s Mockingbird conference, the things one dwells upon are:

points of unconditional love towards yourself. Those are things that shine in the darkness because they are the closest you’ve ever been to God, because God is the love and the mercy of non-rejection, and when that happens to you, you’re in direct connection with God … You’ll think about a moment … when someone loved you in such a way that you cannot shake it.

Neither Anne nor Captain Wentworth is close to death in Persuasion, but their creator was, and it gave her a clear-eyed understanding of what is ultimately important. There is an urgency to Persuasion, one that extends to Anne’s climactic reading of the letter Wentworth secretly writes for her after he decides the possibility of reconciliation with her is worth the risk of further rejection:

I can listen no longer in silence. I must speak to you by such means as are within my reach. You pierce my soul. I am half agony, half hope. Tell me not that I am too late, that such precious feelings are gone for ever. I offer myself to you again with a heart even more your own than when you almost broke it eight years and a half ago.

This declaration of love is more full-throated and informed by past hurt than other analogous admissions of romantic feelings in previous Austen books. It could maybe be read as a little over-the-top by people who haven’t yet experienced major loss or major love, but it rings truer for that to those who have. 

The absence of judgment is the first step towards connection, as rejection (and the fear of it) is what keeps us from loving. Unfortunately, some people carry feelings of rejection “to the very last moment of their life.” Wentworth carried both connection and rejection in his heart for eight and a half years. Remembering the rejection he felt when Anne initially broke off their engagement, but also remembering that she did, in fact, love him before he became anyone of societal consequence. This kind of unmerited, unconditional love, is what we will be thinking about in the end, and it’s only appropriate, because it is an image of God’s love for us, the one thing “that remains forever.”

subscribe to the Mockingbird newsletter


2 responses to “Rejection, Connection, and Persuasion

  1. Tali Avishay-Arbel says:

    It’s interesting to connect Jane Austen’s knowledge of her own approaching death and her writing. I think that shows not only in the main characters’ realization of what is important, but also in Anne’s taking control of her own life.

  2. […] Robert Farrar Capon’s Table Talk, Follow the Devil / Follow the Light, Pandemic Pastors and What Remains, Rejection, Connection, and Persuasion. […]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *