[This post owes a great deal to the tremendously interesting discussion going on at The Valve about postcolonial criticism and to Aaron's and Rohan's comments over at Novel Readings. But I'm finding it a little cumbersome to try to join their discussion directly, so I'll just pretend to start ab novo.]
It's curious to read Persuasion in the light of the (in)famous Said reading of Mansfield Park in his Culture and Imperialism. Said pointed out the Bertram family's Antigua plantation was a sort of enabling fiction, sustaining the family's fortunes and thus making the action of the novel possible in a very real way. Said focused in particular on a casual exchange between Fanny Price and Sir Thomas about the plantation, drawing some fairly broad conclusions. A number of critics (and likely a number of readers) have taken issue with Said's rough handling of Austen and with the implication that Austen was just one more lackey of the slave trade and British imperial oppression more generally.
Persuasion, it seems to me, would have been a better choice for postcolonial critique: even the most inveterately romantic of readers would accept that foregrounding the novel's coziness to Empire would produce a valid reading. Austen effusively and earnestly sings the praises of the British navy in two prominent places, and the fortunes of a number of characters have been made by the imperial project (though not explicitly at the expense of enslaved peoples). Some may still object to Said's act of "implication" and not-so-veiled judgment, but I seriously doubt anyone's going to say that the issues of violent imperial expansion and Great-Power competition are of dubious importance to the novel.
Yet I think that Said's choice was the correct one, although I realize that it is often this question of choice that seems to be most grating to those who resist Poco's Empire: the idea that poco critics are picking books because they are intent on picking on them, and that the forgoing of other, more obviously valid choices is done primarily for political, polemical, or promotional reasons. Although this strategy (or the perception that it is used) has tended to discredit postcolonial criticism in some quarters or otherwise to give rise to the belief (sometimes founded in experience) that poco renders books through its blades and gears like so much meat (as Rohan alluded to). But I think it is generally the selection process, and not the grinding, that its critics find so distasteful: not the sausage, but the choice of whom to call a pig. It is the initial selection that makes the result feel, as Rohan says, like a "gotcha!"
Certainly, Said's choice of Mansfield Park (or of Austen more generally) does have tremendous strategic value. Lionel Trilling's essay on the book anointed it, more or less, as the most intellectually fulfilled (or most morally vexed) of Austen's novels and also limned a darker side to Austen: "She is the first to be aware of the Terror which rules our moral situation… She herself is an agent of the Terror." So engagement with Mansfield Park is certainly a way of striking to Austen's moral/intellectual core, of mounting an effort to draw her into decisive battle. (It might be pointed out that, as Mansfield Park is probably the least beloved of Austen's novels, its relative unpopularity might dampen the ire of Said's critics, but I think the idea of implying that Jane Austen was some kind of complaisant monster is outrageous enough to most people, regardless of the book.)
But Persuasion is also, perhaps, unsuited for the type of "space clearing gestures" (to use Aaron's term) that Said and postcolonialism needed to execute at the time in order to stake out a sufficiently large amount of intellectual working-room. Unlike the other novels, Persuasion is almost void of those firmly plotted junctures which knock the characters onto paths perpendicular to their prior direction. In fact, the idea of continuity or constancy runs through the book like a circulatory system, vivifying every scene and cell. The two protagonists do not, as most of Austen's lovers do, need to reorient their trajectories in order to meet happily; there are not the kinds of transformations, humblings, or self-surmountings which characterize the love-plots of all her other books, and the moral lessons that those books so strongly implied are, if not disavowed, at least a little abrogated. Pride and sensibility are not disciplined; prejudice and sense are not forced to moderate themselves.
Rather than transformation, the book is about its title: persuasion is a watchword for the author and her protagonists. It explains their actions comprehensively: they have been persuaded to do as they did, by social pressures, by familial pressures, by friends or confidants. But in all instances, one cannot say that either ever does something they are entirely opposed to; even Anne's initial rejection of Wentworth is recovered at the end of the novel when she tells him, "I was perfectly right in being guided… I was right in submitting to her [Lady Russell]." The minor characters (Benwick, the Musgrove sisters) may be transformed by events, but Anne and Wentworth are at most nudged closer together, but remain walking in the same direction the whole book through.
Yet this utter constancy is accomplished not in spite of the power of persuasion, but because of its prevalence and strength; Anne's susceptibility to persuasion is also a completely effective defense against the forces which threaten a transformation (her cousin). We can contrast this dynamic with the usual Austenian trope of the headstrong heroine, unwilling to accede to any force of mere persuasion, an obdurance necessitating the right angles of transformative events or revelations which has its apotheosis in Elizabeth Bennett. Fanny Price is almost more like Anne than she is like Elizabeth, but she is far more resistant to certain concessions (like participating in the Inchbald play) than Anne would ever be, and her timid obstinacy is the critical element that allows her to act abruptly on occasion and to act in abrupt occasions, as when the Bertram family is shaken up in such a way that marriage to Edmund becomes possible. The obstacles Austen drops into the plot force everything to go perpendicular; Fanny is able to turn with it.
It seems to me that the type of novel, then, that Persuasion is, is not very well structured for the type of ambitious critique Said wanted to accomplish when he set about analyzing Mansfield Park. How do you score the contrapuntal voice for a straight line?
Yet this does not mean that Persuasion would resist postcolonial criticism, or that the average reader's greater comfort with it being so glossed would be wrong; I think Persuasion actually has a great deal more to say about the different types of power active in the Empire and in the navy than Mansfield Park, but not because those concerns are front and center here and ostensibly tangential there.
The structure or shape of the book, I think, is of more consequence than the subject, and a comparison of Mansfield Park and Persuasion may demonstrate the different kinds of postcolonial criticism one can engage in. The Saidian form is (perhaps too) well-suited for a novel of transformations and right angles, seeming to choose them just to one-up their own voilàs; it is a dramatic criticism, and its postures are abrupt in their turns. But there is an equally valid form of postcolonial criticism which does not require right angles or precipitous revelations.
Or, at least, I think there could be.