Ever think about how the final twist of Persuasion relies so heavily on the pure intimacy and magnetism between Anne and Wentworth? Wentworth has to rely only on all his own quick ingenuity and intuition where Anne is concerned to have any certainty whatsoever that she will move to the spot where he was, that his ruse in returning to draw her eye to the papers on the table will be enough for her to understand that he has left something for her, even after everything that’s passed, after he departed without daring to say goodbye or look at her.
The whole novel is a long examination of Anne’s painful awareness of Wentworth–his proximity, his character, the way he thinks and moves.
This silent signalling to deliver his letter to her is the breaking of a dam–a clear sign that Wentworth has been aware of her, and her awareness of him, and that he is stepping back into the dance they once shared. Even before Anne has opened the letter, she can sense the portent of his action, alone.
One of the reasons I think Persuasion marks a step forward for Austen (although there’s some clumsy plotting which makes me think she still had some work to do on it) is the focus on embodied experience. Anne is hyper-aware of Frederick as a PHYSICAL being, on the space his body takes up relative to hers and his proximity to her. I think this is why, although Anne is the ladiest lady to ever lady, and would never dream of any overt expression of sexual desire Persuasion is almost certainly the sexiest of Austen’s novels, because of that ever-present, simmering desire.
It’s also probably the one that comes closest to depicting romantic love as many people experience it – because of course one of the huge differences between romantic love and other kinds (that of friends or family) is that sense of yearning for the beloved’s BODY, for their touch, their skin against yours. Romantic love is a more…physical experience than other kinds (I wonder if this is why so many parents describe themselves as “in love” with their babies – because while it’s not sexual, the drive to hold them (because WHO doesn’t want to cuddle a baby?) and to have close physical contact is similar).
Austen’s earlier sets of lovers are rather sexless by comparison – we get flashes of similar passion between Darcy and Elizabeth (in the second half of the novel) and Emma and Knightley… but at the same time, the treatment of Marianne and Willoughby shows a certain ambivalence on Austen’s part about it.
I think she had to mature as an artist before she was willing to grapple with romantic love on its own terms. She’s very aware that it can so often be a cover for egotism (too many examples to count, but Lydia, Marianne and even Harriet Smith would fall into this category) and she’s more comfortable mocking seemingly excessive emotions than embracing them.