Persuasion is distinct from some of Austen’s novels in that it opens with an allusion to print and the failure of print to make permanent that which families hold most dear, a respectable name. The story is centered on a family name as figures without status are prohibited from becoming a part of the Eliott family and those who are Elliots by birth abuse the status that the name grants. Captain Wentworth is thus denied Anne Elliot on the basis of this position in society, even though he proves to be financially able. The story then continues as a means of proving to the reader the worthiness of Captain Wentworth and the downfall of a family name. When judging by character, Anne’s suitor and next heir of Kellynch Hall, William Walter Elliot, falls short in comparison Captain Wentworth. Moreover, Captain Wentworth friends prove to be better people than the Elliots. Anne is particularly fond of his friends and when she stays with them, she finds herself healthy and energized. One of the novel’s primary claims seems to be that those who can make a fortune but who do not possess status, people like Admiral and Lady Croft, are better people. Gentility is not imply identified by a name but by an ability to both acquire wealth and garner respect in society. Thus, the individuals in the navy, though looked down upon by the Elliots, become a part of the genteel class without owning property or possessing titles that are outside the military chain.
Many of the individuals in the novel of high birth are flawed. One of the most salient examples of such characters is Sir Elliot, who is described as a vain. He judges others according to the their appearance and almost nothing else. Anne’s sister Elizabeth is also superficial and finds herself unmarried at a risky age because she inherits her father’s sense of entitlement. She wants to marry someone of “baronet-blood” (23) but finds she must still be solicited by such a person. Anne’s younger sister, who is the first to marry, is not vain but exceptionally selfish. The Elliots, as a family, are particularly flawed. The only person that makes status consistent with character is Anne Elliot, a daughter always overlooked and underappreciated. The Crofts, on the other hand, prove to be better examples of good character. Mrs. Croft, unlike most women, chooses to go with her husband when he travels on sea. Women are assumed to be too fragile for such traveling but she is presented as “intelligent and keen as the officers around her” (183). The most admirable characters are minor ones that Anne comes across on her visit to Lyme. Captain Wentforth’s companions are described as benevolent and “perfect gentleman” (220).
One of the more interesting acquaintances Anne comes across in Lyme is Captain Benwick, a melancholy person who suffers the loss of a lover/fiancé. Anne, being the ideal heroine, introduces Captain Benwick to novels and they get along with one another because of their interest in reading and literature. However, Captain Benwick has a mind that is too much affected by poetry, and thus, Anne recommends prose of “highest precepts” to check his emotions, which Austen implies poetry can make too indulgent. Anne thinks:
she ventured to hope he did not always read only poetry, and to say, that she thought it was the misfortune of poetry to be seldom safely enjoyed by those who enjoyed it completely; and that the strong feelings which alone could estimate it truly were the very feelings which ought to taste it but sparingly. (231)
Poetry is thus to be “safely enjoyed” and only by those who are not victims of their grief and emotions. Thus, Austen implies that readers like Captain Benwick balance their taste for poetry with their exposure to good prose, which primarily consists of moral and religious works that might come in the form of conduct books and novels. Additionally, Austen might be telling her readers that though poetry constitutes good reading and nurtures emotions, it is novels that will teach you how to refine your character as it restrains emotions.
Various types of print are highlighted in the novel, from the Elliot family book to poetry to novels. The story begins with the history of family that is made permanent in print but the significance of the family name gradually wanes, particularly when Anne marries Captain Wentworth. There is a cautionary hint at the danger of indulging in poetry, particularly for individuals who are more vulnerable to it. What is esteemed is represented in the heroine’s ultimate happiness in marrying Captain Wentworth. She is not just any heroine, but one who has been educated by novels. Thus, it shapes her character, which is rewarded when her desire for Captain Wentworth is finally realized.