Anne Elliot is a twenty-seven year old daughter of an English baronet. In the summer of 1814, when the novel opens, Anne is rather unhappily situated as the second of three daughters in a family that seems to care very little about her. She's the ignored middle child and the failed seeker of her father's love and favor. She's also the lonely possessor of an unfulfilled heart. Eight years ago, she fell deeply in love with Frederick Wentworth, a man of little financial or familial standing but extensive intellectual and military promise.
Wentworth, who returned Anne's love, asked for her hand in marriage, but a family friend persuaded Anne that such an alliance would be unwise. As a result of this advice, Anne called off her very short engagement and left Wentworth devastated and resentful. For eight years, though, Anne never failed to remember Wentworth and the man who had so captured her heart; every other man paled in comparison, and at twenty-seven, she's still unmarried and seemingly without any new suitors.
All of these circumstances are revealed in order to begin the story's present-day action, which covers the autumn of 1814 and the spring of 1815. (Interestingly, Austen wrote the novel in 1815, just two years before her death).
The story begins when Anne hears word of Wentworth returning to town after years of adventures and heroics in the Navy. He's come a long way since his courtship days with Anne; he's acquired a considerable fortune and much fame, and when he arrives he captures the attention of several young ladies. At first, Anne is determined not to be among his admirers. She's sure that Wentworth no longer has feelings for her, and she hopes that she and he can at least be indifferent friends. However, these hopes are dashed when Wentworth seems to hold a bitter grudge, avoiding Anne as much as possible and instead revelling in the flirtations of other girls.
As time passes, Anne and Wentworth cross paths more often and gradually communicate on a level beyond cool politeness, and both begin to realize that maybe the past isn't gone forever; maybe the future could be beautifully altered by a rediscovery and renewal of former love. On the other hand, perhaps all chances of rekindling that romance are gone forever, as Mr. Elliot, Anne's cousin, pursues Anne with passionate determination.
Meanwhile, Austen introduces a large number of friends and family members, each with their own quirks, motives, and problems. Indeed, there are so many characters, that I decided to draw a character map, listing everyone's names complete with arrows to connect family members. This little map proved immensely helpful as I navigated my way across the Elliots' social landscape.
My initial reaction, upon completing this book, was to compare it with my favorite Austen novel, Pride and Prejudice. Specifically, I've been comparing Anne with the hero of P&P, Elizabeth Bennet, and I've concluded that the two bear little resemblance to one another. To me, Elizabeth is a heroine because of the changes she undergoes during the course of the novel; her realization of her own prejudice leaves her a transformed woman, and her romance with Mr. Darcy is made possible because of her admittance to past error. She is changed by her acquaintance, friendship, and romance with Darcy; she becomes stronger, wiser, and more maturely resolute.
On the other hand, Anne does not undergo any change. By the conclusion of the novel, she does not admit past error but rather blames her prior heartache on the actions and advice of others. Without giving away too much of the story, suffice it to say that Anne appears stubbornly self-righteous and hardly as humane as Elizabeth, whose cold-heartedness to Darcy eventually melts away into tender intimacy. Anne loves Wentworth all along, but her heart seems untouched by the circumstances which bring them back together. In short, I have trouble identifying Anne as a heroine. These may be bold claims (I have not yet read any critical material on this novel), but there they are.
Perhaps the most intriguing aspects of this novel, for me, are the discussions of character merits and defects; what qualities make a person appear strong or weak, attractive or distasteful, sincere or disingenuous? How is hypocrisy identified, and what effects can hypocritical men or women have on others' lives? How powerful are marriage and kinship ties? Who has the power to persuade us to behave in a certain way, and what are the consequences?
Finally, Austen hints at the challenges faced by a female author in the long eighteenth-century in a discussion between Anne and her friend, Captain Harville. In this conversation, Anne notes, "Men have had every advantage of us in telling their own story. Education has been theirs in so much higher a degree; the pen has been in their hands" (page 220). Such language surely references Austen's and other women's struggles in a male-dominated profession.
Yet through her creation of determined, independent-minded heroines, Austen creates power for women within the socially acceptable realm of marriage and domestic life; she is not a radical, but her endorsement of women's independence in matters of love is surely a step in the right direction. For this reason, however, I feel that Anne, who fails to be transformed and whose actions seem delimited by those of others, falls short of the feminine ideal established in Austen's other works.
Recommendation to potential readers: This book is relatively short and also enjoyable for its comments on early nineteenth century society; it's worth the read.