I have a theory that Austen made the heroines of her successive novels studies in contrast. Quiet Fanny follows sparkling Elizabeth, persuadable Anne follows confident Emma. According to Sarah Emsley, Anne is also a foil to Emma in truly possessing the "resources of mind and spirit... that Emma Woodhouse thinks she herself possesses" (Emsley, 145). Emsley also sees Persuasion as the most explicit of the six novels in balancing the virtues. She states, "Anne's argument at the end of the novel that she was right to take Lady Russel's advice, even if the advice was wrong, demonstrates that for Austen, ethics has to do with character rather than rules" (146).
Austen makes deliberate reference to the need for balance -- in this case between firmness and persuadability -- after Louisa's disastrous fall. This "recalls Aristotle's doctrine of the mean, in which virtuous qualities have proportions and limits. Though Wentworth himself does not realize it, he does think that to be sometimes persuadable is a good thing, as he has recommended that Louisa persuade Henrietta to be firm" (148).
Emsley also agrees with my theory that "It is Wentworth, not Anne, who must change in this novel" (149). Once again, critics who claim Austen does not deal with the minds of men are proven wrong, through Wentworth's succinct account of how he came to recognize his own pride.
In Persuasion, Anne must exercise her judgment in her treatment of her varied acquaintances -- from the prideful Lady Dalrymple, and the seemingly-charming Mr Eliot, to the humble Mrs Smith. Emsley demonstrates that in this novel right treatment of others requires consideration, not of "birth or fortune", but of "understanding and value" (153). Sir Walter and Elizabeth are notably without such judgment in their treatment of "only Anne" whose "elegance of mind and sweetness of character" should distinguish her.
Emsley presents Anne's pang of conscience while reading Mr Eliot's private letters as an example of the virtues in tension. In this situation "the code of honor that protects a man's private life and letters conflicts with the attempt of two women to establish the truth. In this case, truth must win in order for Anne to preserve her own character, and to separate herself and her family from the designs of Mr Eliot.. [T]he real virtue of truth triumphs over mere rules..." (154)
When Anne argues that women love longest "when hope is gone" she is uses no literary examples, and it is clear she is thinking of her own situation. However, her behavior throughout the novel demonstrates that she does possess hope, if not in a renewal of Wentworth's love (though this is a primary theme of the last section of the novel), then in something greater than herself. "[It] is through constancy and faith in Persuasion that [Austen] demonstrates the unity of the virtues... Constancy is the natural consequence of the uniting of the classical virtue of fortitude with the Christian virtue of hope" (156). While some critics have argued that Anne is depressed at the beginning of the novel, her consistent actions of kindness and care for others are examples of fortitude born of hope. This is hope as Paul conceives of it in Romans 5:4, "Experience [worketh] hope." Like love, it is not merely an emotion, but a way of viewing the world that motivates action toward others. In short, Anne possess Paul's trivium: faith, hope, and love. Emsley concludes that "Persuasion contains the closest thing to an explicit theory of the unity of classical and Christian virtues" (158).
These thoughts are drawn from Sarah Emsley's book Jane Austen's Philosophy of the Virtues.