I may muddle up the order of the other novels, but Persuasion always comes last and best, as it should. Most of the other novels were written or at least started when Austen herself was very young, and although their heroines may seem quite grown-up when one first encounters them at fourteen, later in life they start resembling the Lord High Chancellor's wards: "All very agreeable girls and none/are over the age of twenty-one."
Undoubtedly Marianne Dashwood's assertion that "a woman of seven and twenty . . . can never hope to feel or inspire affection again" is meant to be a bit over the top, but the portrayal of twenty-seven-year-old Charlotte Lucas, with the choice of celibacy or Mr. Collins, leaves us in some doubt as to whether it was meant to be very far over the top after all.
Regardless, Anne Elliot (who is, in fact, seven and twenty) seems Austen's own answer to her youthful lack of perspective. She does fear that she cannot inspire affection again, but she has no loss of affection herself. Indeed, Persuasion is by far the most passionate of the novels. The undercurrent between Anne and Captain Wentworth, unspoken, unacknowledged, runs through every encounter. They speak to others, they look everywhere but at each other, but they are always so acutely aware of each other that everything and everyone else is only so much background noise.
The short version of the plot is that, eight years before, Anne had become engaged to Wentworth, then a lowly underofficer with no money or immediate prospects for marriage. Her family and friend opposed the match, and given the long and uncertain nature of the engagement, she is persuaded to end it. (I had not really noticed it before, but at Austen's time there appears to have been a clear double standard with regard to engagements--a lady could end an engagement without shame, but a gentleman could not, as witness Edward Farrars.)
As things turned out, however, Wentworth advanced rapidly in the navy and made his fortune in the Napoleonic wars. He returns to the neighborhood eight years later an excellent match, ready to settle down with any reasonably suitable young lady except, of course, Anne, whom he is certain he can never forgive.
Unfortunately, of course, he also realizes that he can never quite find anybody to match up to Anne. He tries to flirt with her teenaged relations, but his heart is never in it. They are younger and prettier and more lively, but they don't measure up. Meanwhile Anne--whom everyone has been thinking is quite on the shelf--goes through a bit of a renaissance herself, and acquires an even more eligible suitor.
The ending of course, is just as it should be and an eminently satisfactory response to the early novels' implication that love and life pretty much end at twenty-two. And in addition, there's the marvelous middle-aged Mrs. Croft, whose intelligence, energy and spirits make her the sort of person anyone would want to grow up to be, and whose marriage to the Admiral is perfectly delightful to see.
An interesting character contrast within the novel comes between Anne's sister Mary Musgrove, and Anne's school friend Mrs. Smith. Mary is not really a bad character, but she is a perennial whiner. She has everything anyone could ask for: plenty of money, a nice house, a kind and well-behaved husband, children arriving in due course (I suspect she's pregnant with number 3 during the novel, though it doesn't go on long enough to verify), decent health, pleasant in-laws. Yet she is constantly aggrieved at someone or something: someone is always slighting her, something is always going wrong and making her miserable. I do hope she grows up a bit (she is only 25, I think) or some of her blessings are going to go sour. Mrs. Smith, on the other hand, has next to nothing: alone in the world, money gone, health gone, living in a tiny room and supplementing her meager income with knitting. Yet she is constantly cheerful, interested in everything, entirely lacking in envy. I'm not sure one could want to be Mrs. Smith, yet one can still admire her from a safe distance.
Alas, though, now I have come to the end and must put something else in my novel slot. I've never given Sir Walter Scott much of a chance, so I'm trying Rob Roy.