Straight Talk in Persuasion

  • Tara Ghoshal Wallace


‘Art’ is an important word in Austen criticism. Used admiringly, it turns up in almost all discussion of her work, its centrality asserted in book titles from Mary Lascelles’ Jane Austen and Her Art (1939) to Roger Gard’s Jane Austens Novels: The Art of Clarity (1992).1 When writing about Jane Austen’s art, critics generally refer to her narrative control, her subtle indirections, her mastery of refracted discourse. Emma is usually taken to represent the apogee of this artistry, while Persuasion is often seen in slightly different terms — sometimes as a shift to a new Romantic mode, and sometimes as a draft which has yet to attain Emmas level of polish.2 Of course, no reader of Persuasion argues that it is not artful, and its subtleties are usually organized into three categories: control of viewpoint through a particularly reliable and admirable heroine, use of indirect speech and physical gesture as modes of communication, and careful layering of narrative voice and characters’ speech. My reading of Persuasion does not deny any of these artistic techniques, but argues that even while Austen deploys them, she simultaneously questions her own artful constructs, inscribing into her text interrogations and even subversions of her own subtleties.


Book Title Intimate Friend Indirect Communication Indirect Speech Text Interrogation 
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  1. 1.
    See also Jocelyn Harris, Jane Austens Art of Memory (1989), which continues the work of Kenneth Moler’s Jane Austens Art of Allusion (1968), and Joseph Wiesenfarth, The Errand of Form: An Assay of Jane Austens Art (1967).Google Scholar
  2. 8.
    Judy Van Sickle Johnson, ‘The Bodily Frame: Learning Romance in Persuasion’, Nineteenth-Century Fiction 38.1 (June 1983) 45; Laura G. Mooneyham 174; Tony Tanner 235; Janis P. Stout, Strategies of Reticence: Silence and Meaning in the Works of Jane Austen, Willa Cather, Katherine Anne Porter, and Joan Didion (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1990) 60.Google Scholar
  3. 11.
    Wiltshire 173; James L. Kastely, ‘Persuasion: Jane Austen’s Philosophical Rhetoric’, Philosophy and Literature 15 (1991) 81. Van Sickle Johnson points out that Anne’s certainties about Wentworth are ‘qualified. … Anne’s understanding is not so confident as the initial words [about knowing Wentworth’s state of mind] indicate. John Hardy attributes this lack of confidence to the lapse of time and closeness: ‘Because of their long estrangement, she and Wentworth can no longer occupy the kind of shared space or privacy that presumably marked their earlier intimacy’ (Jane A ustens H eroines: Intimacy in Human Relationships [London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1984] 111).Google Scholar
  4. 13.
    Craik 175. Yasmine Gooneratne, Jane Austen (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1970) 180.Google Scholar
  5. 14.
    Marylea Meyersohn, ‘Jane Austen’s Garrulous Speakers: Social Criticism in Sense and Sensibility, Emma, and Persuasion’, Reading and Writing Womens Lives 46.Google Scholar
  6. 16.
    David Lodge, After Bakhtin: Essays on Fiction and Criticism (London: Routledge, 1990) 126. Louise Flavin makes the same point in her article ‘Austen’s Persuasion’: ‘Jane Austen is the first English novelist to make extensive and sophisticated use of free indirect discourse, a mode of speech or thought presentation that allows a narrator the privilege of commentary and selection, while retaining the idiomatic qualities of the speaker’s words or thoughts’ (The Explicator 47.4 [Summer 1989] 20). Both critics, of course, employ Mikhail Bakhtin’s theory of dialogics, which at least partly informs most recent studies of Austen. For the purposes of my argument here, one passage from Bakhtin’s work seems particularly relevant. Rejecting traditional stylistic methodology, Bakhtin warns against the impulse to unitary readings: ‘Even when we exclude character speech and inserted genres, authorial language itself still remains a stylistic system of languages: large portions of this speech will take their style (directly, parodically, or ironically) from the language of others, and this stylistic system is sprinkled with others’ words, words not enclosed in quotation marks, formally belonging to authorial speech but clearly distanced from the mouth of the author by ironic, parodic, polemical or some other preexisting ‘qualified’ intonation’ (The Dialogic Imagination 415–16).Google Scholar

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© Tara Ghoshal Wallace 1995

Authors and Affiliations

  • Tara Ghoshal Wallace
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of EnglishGeorge Washington UniversityUSA

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