We don’t quite get along, Jane Austen and I. I’ve all but renounced her much-loved Pride and Prejudice, and not because I enjoy being contrary [though I occasionally do] but because it simply isn’t the story—love, social-niceties, of-the-era—I am looking for, or even want. Austen and I, we do not suit. I have accepted that—although I still remain open to the fact that, perhaps, one slow day years and years from now, I’ll reacquaint myself with Lizzy and Mr. Darcy, and feel something other than Meh.
I wanted to read Persuasion because I figured it was my Austen, finally. No battle of wits, no hiding behind fans, no overheated country balls. Here were two people with history: disappear-into-the-wallpaper Anne Elliott has fallen in love with the ambitious and charismatic naval officer Frederick Wentworth—but breaks off their engagement on the advise of family and friends. It is, after all, young, socially and financially unadvisable love.
Eight years later, they meet again—“Once so much to each other! Now nothing!”—and they have to reconcile the past, and their feelings now: How much has Anne changed? that is, has she grown a spine? how has Wentworth [now a captain] truly been all these years?
It’s an intriguing hook, one with great potential for emotional depth. Premise, I like you, I wrote in my notes.
But that’s about it. All too soon, I realized that Persuasion wasn’t for me—and perhaps Austen would not really be an author I’d love. Oh, I understand its quietness, I can step back and appreciate its subtlety, its undercurrents, the passion sizzling beneath the calm, occasionally tongue-in-cheek narrative. I could see that it was a poignant love story. But, see, it just wasn’t mine.
I could understand that, in much the same way the first chapters saw Anne run roughshod by her family, friends, and the countryside, Anne’s place in the narrative took a backseat. That it’s style reflecting content. But, good lord, it was so frustrating for me—I cheered when Austen would relent and let Anne hint at what she felt. Anne, whose “word had no weight, her convenience was always to give way; —she was only Anne.” Yes, yes, but not for me. I waited for Anne to assert herself.
The intro to this edition mentions how Anne can’t be the timid spinster she’s resigned herself to be—that her mind’s a passionate tumult. Well, yes, yes, I see your point, but I can’t see enough of it in the text. And, yes, perhaps my boredom had me greatly missing Anne’s growth as a character—but after a while, it wasn’t my concern anymore. I just needed story, I needed the assurance that I was reading a novel that remotely liked me.
Anne and Captain Wentworth’s reunion had me cheering. And then I waited, again.
The highlight of the story for me was when Captain Wentworth finally took the stage, and the point of view—just a handful of paragraphs in the entire novel, actually. Here, his feelings toward his and Anne’s steely reunion:
He had thought her wretchedly altered, and in the first moment of appeal, had spoken as he felt. He had not forgiven Anne Elliot. She had used him ill, deserted and disappointed him; and worse, she had shewn a feebleness of character in doing so, which his own decided, confident temper could not endure. She had given him up to oblige others. It had been the effect of over-persuasion. It had been weakness and timidity.
He had been most warmly attached to her, and had never seen a woman since whom he thought her equal; but, except from some natural sensation of curiosity, he had no desire of meeting her again. Her power with him was gone for ever.
This passage raised my hopes—I grinned at the book, I all but swooned. But, well, that was it. That was it for him. I was stuck with Anne and the majority of Bath once again.
The occasional smolder would appear—a little poof here and there in the coals of an already banked fire, I suppose? But no. Subplots abound, pesky characters slip in and out and hog the spotlight to prove some social point.
This, I’ve realized, is part of my main beef with Austen: there’s just so much peripheral action. Fine, this is a social novel—but I’m a fan of the focused and the internal doohickey, ya know. That’s me. And cutting back on the social niceties and those pesky peripherals—that would not make this an Austen novel, then.
Another thing: I’m not affected by Austen’s insights on love. Not in here, not in Pride and Prejudice, not in Sense and Sensibility. I scowled when I read, with Anne, Captain Wentworth’s letter:
“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.”
And though I recognize the poignancy of their relationship’s turn, it was too sudden and unseen for me. A mouthpiece reigniting of their love:
There they exchanged again those feelings and those promises which had once before seemed to secure everything, but which had been followed by so many, many years of division and estrangement. There they returned again into the past, more exquisitely happy, perhaps, in their re-union, than when it had been first projected; more tender, more tried, more fixed in a knowledge of each other’s character, truth, and attachment; more equal to act, more justified in acting.
Why am I not moved? Why don’t I believe any of this? Why am I inclined to think that what many have called the constancy of love is only an arbitrary narrative technique? Why do I suspect that these two allowed themselves to be persuaded, yet again—this time into loving each other, convincing themselves that yes, this love was finally theirs, and for forever?
I read Persuasion by Jane Austen as part of the Dueling Authors: Austen vs. Dickens Tour hosted by The Classics Circuit. [I was pretty confident I wouldn’t touch Dickens.] The link up there leads you to the updated schedule: for more blogs, more books, more opinions. As always, thank you to Rebecca and our current tour’s guest-host Nicole Bonia. See, although it didn’t work out, at least I’m more certain now with where I stand with Jane Austen.