Let us assume, please, that we all agree Jane Austen is a genius and reading her books is an experience equivalent to eating chocolate bon-bons and sipping champagne (or Scotch, if you’re of my inclination) while the sun sets on a perfect late-spring day as a string quartet plays Bach on your mansion’s terrace.
Thus I will spare you discussion of why I love Jane Austen, which is pretty much why everyone else loves Jane Austen, and move on to the particular pleasures of Persuasion, her last completed novel.
Persuasion concerns Anne Elliot, a woman in her late twenties who once had an understanding with a young naval officer, an understanding that was given up under the well-meaning influence of a family friend, Lady Russell. In the intervening years Anne has not married and Captain Wentworth has made a name and fortune for himself; thanks to Anne’s father’s profligacy, the two meet again when Frederick’s sister and brother-in-law rent the Elliott estate. However, Frederick has not forgiven her for what he feels was a grievous error on her part, and as other romantic interests present themselves, it seems as if the two will never reconcile.
Persuasion is my favorite of Austen’s novels, and I limit myself to a reading every three years or so. What struck me on this reading — perhaps because I was reading To the Lighthouse at the same time — was the immense interiority of the novel — so much of the writing focuses on Anne’s emotions and reasoning. Akin more to Elinor Dashwood than Elizabeth Bennet or Emma Woodhouse, Anne feels deeply but does not permit herself to give vent to those feelings. What distinguishes her from Fanny Price (I’ve never much cared for Fanny) is her sense of duty, her inward nature turned outward to comfort and help those around her, however undeserving they may be. In other words, Fanny comes across as a victim, acted upon by others, while Anne is fully-realized rational agent. Perhaps her age has something to do with her maturity and kindness (she is selfless, but not a martyr); she’s roughly ten years older than Austen’s other heroines.
In addition to Anne’s charms as a heroine, Persuasion also offers delightful bits and pieces of advice and food for thought. Here are a few of my favorites.
Still true of any two readers:
” [. . . ] and they walked together for some time, talking as before of Mr. Scott and Lord Byron, and still as unable, as before, and as unable as any other two readers, to think exactly alike of the merits of either [. . .]” (90)
Good for parents to keep in mind:
“When any two young people take it into their heads to marry, they are pretty sure by perseverance to carry their point, be they ever so poor, or ever so imprudent, or ever so little likely to be necessary to each other’s ultimate comfort. This may be bad morality conclude with, but I believe it to be the truth.” (199)
To keep in mind during election years:
“Mr. Elliot was rational, discreet, polished, — but he was not open. There was never any burst of feeling, any warmth of indignation or delight, at the evil or good of others. This, to Anne, was a decided imperfection. Her early impressions were incurable. She prized the frank, the open-hearted, the eager character beyond all others. Warmth and enthusiasm did captivate her still. She felt that she could so much more depend upon the sincerity of those who sometimes looked or said a careless or a hasty thing, than of those whose presence of mind never varied, whose tongue never slipped.” (131)
How we book bloggers might describe ourselves:
” ‘Give him a book and he will read all day long.’ [. . . ] ‘He will sit poring over his book, and not know when a person speaks to him, or when one drops one’s scissors, or any thing that happens.'” (108)
And perhaps the greatest fictional love letter ever:
I can listen no longer in silence. I must speak to you by such means as are within my reach. You pierce my soul. I am half agony, half hope. Tell me not that I am too late, that such precious feelings are gone for ever. I offer myself to you again with a heart even more your own than when you almost broke it, eight years and a half ago. Dare not say that man forgets sooner than woman, that his love has an earlier death. I have loved none but you. Unjust I may have been, weak and resentful I have been, but never inconstant. You alone have brought me to Bath. For you alone I think and plan. Have you not seen this? Can you fail to have understood my wishes? I had not waited even these ten days, could I have read your feelings, as I think you must have penetrated mine. I can hardly write. I am every instant hearing something which overpowers me. You sink your voice, but I can distinguish the tones of that voice when they would be lost on others. Too good, too excellent creature! You do us justice, indeed. You do believe that there is true attachment and constancy among men. Believe it to be most fervent, most undeviating, in
F. W.” (191)
By the way, my favorite film adaptation of Persuasion is the 1995 film version with Amanda Root and Ciarán Hinds. It is, I think, the truest film adaptation of Austen I’ve ever seen.
What’s your favorite Austen novel? Have you read Persuasion? What did you think?