Friday, 23 September 2011

Persuasion, Jane Austen

There could have been no two hearts so open, no tastes so similar, no feelings so in unison, no countenances so beloved. Now they were as strangers; nay, worse than strangers, for they could never become acquainted. It was a perpetual estrangement.
I discovered the works of Jane Austen when I was in my late teens: first Northanger Abbey when I was in the sixth form, followed quickly by the rest through the first year or so at university. Persuasion was my least favourite at first, although I've come to appreciate it more now I'm older. The last of Austen's novels, not published until after her death, Persuasion is a more grown-up tale than her usual social and romantic satires. The cast is older than Austen's usual 17- to 22-year-old heroines; Anne Eliot is twenty-seven and considered by all an old maid. She has experienced life, been disappointed in her dreams and is now making the best of things.

As a young woman, Anne Eliot experienced a whirlwind romance with Frederick Wentworth, an officer in the navy. Advised by a trusted friend that the marriage would be imprudent, Anne broke the engagement, Wentworth's heart and her own. Wentworth went to sea where he made a name and a fortune for himself, while Anne stayed at home with her intolerably snobbish family, putting all the effort in keeping the household running smoothly, and receiving none of the credit. Eight years later, despite Anne's attempt to stop her father and sister from living beyond their means, the Eliots are forced to let out their home, and the new tenants are Captain Wentworth's sister and brother-in-law. Both parties put off their reunion as long as they can, but the inevitable meeting is confirmation for Anne that the passing years have not cooled her love for Captain Wentworth. But what of his feelings? Is this a second chance for the couple to receive their happily-ever-after?

Of course. This is Jane Austen after all. Yet this time the ending doesn't have the usual feel of being a foregone conclusion, and my best friend actually didn't expect it to end well on her first reading. The obstacles between the young lovers are more internal than usual. The first time around, it was the friends' and family's objections that came between Anne and Frederick, which we have seen before in Austen with the Tilneys, the Ferrars, Lady Catherine de Bourgh... you get the picture. The outright snobbery of "NO COMMONER LIKE YOU WILL MARRY MY OFFSPRING," is relatively easily resolved compared with the well-intentioned, "I'm not so sure this is a good idea," of Emma's amateur matchmaking, and here, Lady Russell, Anne's mentor and substitute mother-figure. The difference here is that Lady Russell was successful in her persuasion, and the lovers have to deal with the consequences of this: eight years of anger and hurt on Wentworth's side, and eight years of doubt and regret on Anne's. Most of the scenes containing the former lovers feature very little interaction between them, and yet the tension is palpable. There is a sort of claustrophobia in Anne's acute awareness of Wentworth's every word, every action, and that he, too, is watching her just as closely. The resolution, when at last it comes, is all the sweeter for the book-long wait, and the eight years that preceded the first chapter.
"You pierce my soul. I am half agony, half hope. Tell me not that I am too late, that such precious feelings are gone forever. 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. I have loved none but you." 
I loudly declare myself to be immune to "the mushy stuff," but Persuasion is a romance that makes me feel swoony, a true, deep and constant love that goes above and beyond most of the stories that are labelled as romance. Persuasion used to be my least favourite Austen novel, but now I suspect it is the best.

4 comments:

  1. I love Persuasion - for me it's the most uplifting of Austen's books because it reminds me that it's never to late to find yourself a happy-ever-afer ending. The first time I read it I knew it had to end happily (because surely all her books end happily?) but I was still in suspense until the very end. Oooh gosh, you've just reminded me how much I love this books - i'm going to have to go and read it again!

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  2. I read this earlier in the year and loved it. I read Pride and Prejudice first and loved it, but then I read Sense and Sensibility and Mansfield Park and felt a bit let down.

    It wasn't until I forced myself to read this one that I realised Jane Austen wasn't just a one-hit wonder.

    I love Emma too; I read that last month, I think.

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  3. I actually prefer S&S to P&P - they are more or less the same story, I think, but P&P has been done so many times I know it too well. Northanger Abbey is my other fav - great if you're familiar with gothic literature, as it's poking fun at all the tropes that were overused even then.

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  4. OH! Persuasion rips my heart out, it's easily my favourite Jane Austen. Followed by Sense and Sensibility..

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You've read what I think, now it's your turn.

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