Which Austen book/movie do you think had the most sexual tension?
Persuasion, hands down.
Think about it: every other novel depends wholly upon the uncertainty of the heroine being unaware of the hero’s romantic interest for some portion of the novel, with misunderstandings and difficulties largely brought on by the structure of Proper Courtship where it was generally considered inappropriate for either party to display too much obvious inclination until a proposal was actually made. (Marianne’s quick and clear affection for Willoughby makes a lot of people uncomfortable. Fanny Price is commended for her placid response to Henry Crawford’s flirtations. Elizabeth Bennet doesn’t even begin to remotely consider Darcy as a marital prospect until after he’s proposed and been rejected with some of the sickest burns ever committed to the page.)
But Persuasion. Ah, Persuasion. Anne has already previously accepted and then rejected Wentworth before the novel even starts. The whole book already exists at the level of tension we see reached when Lizzy runs into Darcy unexpectedly on her visit to Pemberley. That’s the whole book.
And it gets better.
Anne didn’t reject Wentworth because she couldn’t fuckin’ stand him, the way Elizabeth chewed off Darcy’s ear for being a dillhole to Jane and (she thinks) to Wickham. Anne loved Wentworth, and he loved her. They were devoted to each other. It’s the fact that she broke off the engagement despite this that rankles, for both of them. The attraction was there. It was acknowledged. It was allowed to burn wild and bright for that brief, delicious time before Lady Russell’s doubts and concerns seized hold of Anne and persuaded her to wreck his happiness, and her own. No, they were both fully aware of how much they wanted each other, and they were like “yeah, let’s get married, it’ll be great, I love you so much, oh God you’re so attractive, you’re amazing, I want to spend the rest of my life with you, you’re everything I could ever want.”
It was real and undeniable. They cannot unsay any of it. And then it was over.
And that’s just the backstory.
So despite Wentworth being hella difficult for Anne to read, and her own shattered expectations and self-esteem leading her to believe that of course he’s over her and totally into Louisa Musgrove, why wouldn’t he be, she’s young and cute and so many things Anne is not…we still get to watch Anne burn for this man after eight years apart and know that that’s a fire that’s never going to go out for the rest of her life, if time and distance and hopelessness and even the attentions of other charming young men in Captain Benwick and Mr. Elliott haven’t managed to put out those flames.
And on the re-read we can pick up on every look and cue from Wentworth which we then know to be signs of the fact that he is as helplessly lost to his desire for this person as he was nearly a decade earlier. He wants to believe otherwise and tries to act as if it is–and in a classic case of over-compensation gives rise to hopes and expectations from Louisa Musgrove which then very nearly lock him into an attachment which would surely divide him from Anne forever. And even when he feels himself safe from that, he confronts the possibility of Anne being taken by a rival in Mr. Elliott, and can only watch, rather than give a clear sign of his intent. After all the time that has passed, he is now in the position Anne was in at the beginning of the book, and must painfully struggle to weigh his own doubts against his desires. The no-liking-each-other-too-much-until-you-pop-the-question courtship rules still apply, and an open and happy flirtation at this point is not in their natures as individuals–they’re older than most other heroes and all other heroines. They know the risks. They’ve seen happiness slip away, before, and wonder if it is lost forever. Their emotional stakes are higher. He cannot bear to ask again, face to face.
The misery. The agony. The helpless and resentful eyefucking. That LETTER.