Is Austen’s Persuasion a Romantic novel?

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Some time ago I was asked to give a lecture on Persuasion as a Romantic novel – a bit of a challenge because I’d never really seen it as such :-). However, I was lecturing on a Romantic Literature course and someone had put Persuasion on the course list… A colleague jokily suggested that I should do a lecture on Austen as 18thc novelist, he should do Austen as Victorian novelist and we should find a Romanticist to argue for Austen as Romantic novelist. We decided that this might confuse our undergraduates and since my only Romanticist friend didn’t see Austen as a Romantic novelist either I was doomed.

Labels are always problematic and perhaps the greater the writer the more resistant to labels the work becomes.

I still don’t see Austen as a Romantic writer but what follows are my thoughts on how one might approach Persuasion on an undergraduate course in Romantic literature.

Extract from my lecture on Persuasion.

In what sense then can we regard Persuasion as a Romantic novel?

It is at first glance difficult to see how Austen fits into what Behrendt defines as ‘The masculinist, heroic ideology (encompassing the roles of bard and prophet) long associated with Romantic poetry’. Criticism has turned its attention in recent years to the work of women in the Romantic period and has recognised that we need to widen our definition of Romanticism beyond the canonical ‘big six’ (Blake, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron, Shelley and Keats).

During the Romantic period the novel, not poetry, was the most widely available form of writing, apart from newspapers and magazines’. Behrendt argues usefully: ‘Just as in the late twentieth century countless citizens follow soap operas…so too did the Romantic reader see in fiction reflections of a world so close to her or his own that the fictions took on the nature of fact’.

So in what sense does Austen reflect the social realities of the Romantic era?

As Tony Tanner points out, Austen lived through the American War of Independence (as a child), the French Revolution, the rise and fall of Napoleon, Industrial Revolution and numerous riots in England such as the Luddite riots in 1811. None of these events, which dominated English culture at the time, find explicit reference in her fiction. This is not because she was unaware of them.

If we take perhaps the most obvious event, the French Revolution – Eliza Hancock, Austen’s cousin and friend since childhood, married a French Captain, the Comte de Feuillide, who was a fervent royalist. She was in France in 1793 when the Reign of Terror began and, threatened with arrest by the Committee of Public Safety, she fled to England to stay with the Austens. Her husband, the Comte, was guillotined in 1794 as an Enemy of the Republic. The stories Eliza told about this period gave Austen an enduring hatred of Republican France.

France was involved in wars with other European powers (always including Great Britain) from 1792-1802, from 1803-1814, and during the “hundred days” in 1815 – so we were pretty much constantly at war with France during Austen’s adult lifetime. Unusually for Austen, Persuasion is set in a specific time period, the autumn and spring of 1814-15 (it was written in 1815-16 and published two years later after Austen’s death). So it is set during the lull in fighting between the capture and imprisonment of Napoleon in 1814 and his escape from Elba and final defeat at Waterloo in 1815. Austen’s brothers, Charles and Francis (known as Frank), were both in the navy and rose to become admirals. Francis in particular sent detailed letters about the voyages and campaigns he was involved in.

Austen may not deal directly with war or the storming of the Bastille (she doesn’t need to – it dominated the English imagination for decades) but she does engage with the principles of the revolution as they relate to contemporary England, where class tensions erupted into riots but had not yet caused the revolution many feared. Abolition of class privilege was one of the main demands of the French people in 1789. In Persuasion, Austen addresses this volatile issue.

For a more detailed discussion please see my lecture on Persuasion.

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