Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Persuasion by Jane Austen

Title: Persuasion
Author: Jane Austen
Publisher: Penguin Classics (2003)
Originally published in 1817

My love of Austen is no big secret and Persuasion is even the one I thought of first when I made a short Keeper List (though I have them all obviously and in multiple formats, too:). However, I've never read this title with quite so critical an eye or with a mental comparison to the movie running through my mind. For this new experience I can thank Michael for agreeing to queue up what will be the third romance in our joint post series. For anyone new to the series, this is where we choose a book/movie pairing and I say a few words on the book and Michael says a few words on the movie.


Anne Elliot is the middle daughter of a spendthrift and self-important English baron. Eight years before the events of the novel she gave in to family pressure (including pressure from family friend and surrogate mother Lady Russell) and broke her engagement to Captain Wentworth. At the time of the engagement, Wentworth was a mere Mr and not in possession of any significant assets. All this made him far below what the Elliots considered eligible for a daughter of the family.

Sir Walter Elliot's poor budgetary skills have forced the family to remove from their ancestral seat and take a home in Bath. Their new tenants are none other than Wentworth's sister and husband (the world of Austen is always a small one). Anne remains in the neighborhood with her younger sister's family or Lady Russell for several months. When Wentworth comes to visit his sister they are often in company together. It's awkward and, for Anne, often painful because she still loves him. When he begins to court one of the neighbors' daughters, Anne tries to resign herself to fully letting him go.

What first drew me to Austen back in my high school days was her biting wit. I read very, very few romances back then (in fact, Austen is the only romance writer I can remember reading) and it wasn't for the romance that I kept going back to Austen: it was the zingers. Austen's books are like onions (or parfaits, everybody likes parfaits): you can read them for the romance, you can read them for the accurate portrayal of life in Regency England, or you can read them for the awesome satire. She must have been wonderfully observant because you just couldn't make up the ridiculous things some of the characters do or say. And the little asides that make, with very English restraint, an observation perfectly clear are just delightful.

Lady Elliot had been an excellent woman, sensible and amiable; whose judgement and conduct, if they might be pardoned the youthful infatuation which made her Lady Elliot, had never required indulgence afterwards.

If it wasn't already obvious, how gently Austen tips the reader to Sir Walter's uselessness as a person. Austen also had such an eye for the realities of a genteel life. She was the daughter of a Reverend so not rich but still amongst a set of people who often had no occupation whatsoever. Doubly so since a woman's sphere was quite small and completely in the hands of a guardian or husband. She teases out how an idle life can lead to a ridiculous nature. Anne's younger sister is married with children but not at all comfortable with a life with too little to do which manifests in pettish illnesses and obnoxious behavior.

She could soon sit upright on the sofa, and began to hope she might be able to leave it by dinner-time. Then, forgetting to think of it, she was at the other end of the room, beautifying a nosegay; then, she ate her cold meat and then...

Austen must certainly have had a healthy appreciation for the ridiculous and Austen readers often do as well.

Anne always contemplated them as some of the happiest creatures of her acquaintance; but still, saved as we all are, by some comfortable feeling of superiority from wishing for the possibility of exchange, she would not have given up her own more elegant and cultivated mind for all their enjoyments...

The real circumstances of this pathetic piece of family history were, that the Musgroves had had the ill fortune of a very troublesome, hopeless son; and the good fortune to lose him before he reached his twentieth year...

But in the midst of these little asides, petty family dramas, and painfully close views of the limited options available to women at the time, there is always a very satisfying romance to thread it all together.

Alas! with all her reasoning, she found, that to retentive feelings eight years may be little more than nothing.

The perspective is a little scatter shot but always more from Anne's perspective than from Wentworth's. It's clear early on that Anne has never lost her love for Wentworth and, as the story progresses, it's also obvious that Wentworth still cares for Anne. But, in case you're curious, ditching your fiance because your family tells you to is not exactly received well by the ditchee. Wentworth is hurt and looking for excuses to keep distant from Anne. The Musgrove daughters offer plenty of opportunity for distraction.

What I admire in Anne is that she regrets the loss of a companion she held (and holds) so dear but she never regrets her decision. For all the ridiculousness of her family (and, truly, she's the only sane one of the bunch) her loyalty to her family is quite high. In light of this, she is convinced that a happy marriage would not have been hers were she to have married against her family's wishes at such a young age. Whether you agree or not with her sentiments, it's easy to understand why she made her decision. It's also easy to understand how, at the ripe old age of 28, she's gained some independence from the over-bearing influences of her youth. Her decisions now will be much more guided by her own desires (Wentworth having made his fortune doesn't hurt when it comes to family acceptance either).

The novel is rather somber in tone, both in the dispositions of the heroine and hero but also in their courtship. Fairly or unfairly, second chances rarely appear as romantic as first love and they both have legitimate challenges in living down what happened 8 years ago. Still, Austen won't leave you long without a laugh.

By this time the report of the accident had spread among the workmen and boatmen about the Cobb, and many were collected near them, to be useful if wanted, at any rate, to enjoy the sight of a dead young lady, nay, two dead young ladies, for it proved twice as fine as the first report.
(no one actually dies in the book:)

Obviously, I loves me some Austen! This is getting crazy long and I still have so many notes in the ol' Kindle. How about I leave with one last thing. Even in this, Austen's last novel, her style retains some of the hallmarks of stories read aloud for the family. She doesn't stealthily weave in back story or current events: she simply spells them out - as is expedient - at the beginning of the story when setting a scene.

Yet so miserably had he [Elliot heir] conducted himself, that though she was at this present time (summer of 1814) wearing black ribbons for his wife, she could not admit him to be worth thinking of again.

And that's a little bit how you feel during the story. You get a close view of someone's home life. You see the small disappointments and revel in the triumphs... You wonder how you can read one more paragraph about the stupid father or the tedious sister... But, then, you can't choose your relatives and when the sphere of your existence is limited the only stage you have is the one you were born into.


rating: 5 of 5 stars



Coming up next:
The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler


6 comments:

  1. I have never read Austen, but always thought that I would someday. So this would be your recommendation for first up on the TBR? My only exposure has been the movie adaptations. (Sense and Sensibility being one of my all time favorite films.) Have you seen the UK miniseries, Lost in Austen? A diehard modern day Austen fan switches places with Elizabeth Bennett. (If you can't find repeat on BBCAmerica, like I did, I believe it's available on DVD. Plus there's an American remake as a feature film in the works.)

    I do love the wit of her writing. Thanks for this, Rachel! Another great joint post!

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  2. Hey Christine! Glad you enjoyed it. Honestly, if you love Lee's Sense and Sensibility then I would start with that book. It's similar in tone to Persuasion and as equally well written. I am less interested in that story which is why I like Persuasion more. My personal batting order is:

    Pride and Prejudice*/Persuasion
    Northanger Abbey*
    Sense and Sensibility
    Mansfield Park
    Emma*

    *these are her titles that I consider comedies, the others are dramas.

    I have seen Lost in Austen but I couldn't get into it. I have some moments where I chuckled but I can't suspended my disbelief well in time travel stories so rather than just being petty and hating it I gave it a pass. :)

    I hope you'll let me know how your Austen reading goes!

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  3. I really enjoyed reading your thoughts and admiration for Jane Austen and her works (particularly 'Persuasion'), Rachel. Your enthusiasm comes through and it is a bit infectious. Now, I'm not saying I want to totally jump onboard the good ship Austen, but I can see within your review all the ingredients you eat up. Even reading the excerpts from the novel, of course reading them more than once, does make for a contrast with the adaptation that's interesting. Translating it, even with all of the period trappings of location, art direction and costume, sounds difficult.

    I'm glad to have given this genre a spin, and I may want to attempt another down the line (more to see if it becomes easier the second time around). Also interesting is that you consider this our 'third' romance. I guess the fantasy and parody of 'The Princess Bride' and sci-fi/fantasy aspects of 'Somewhere in Time' through me off enough to consider them otherwise. But, yeah, I can see the romance tally equalling that number now.

    As always, an enjoyable (and learning) experience. Thanks for the challenge, Rachel.

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  4. @ Christine: I might give 'Lost in Austen' a whirl! Thanks.

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  5. I'm glad you enjoyed it enough to have a sense of humor about it. :) Since I made several recommendations over at your site I won't repeat them here but you can see I'm up for another round (or at least hearing your thoughts if you attempt a book) anytime.

    Thanks again for doing this one. Always a good time.

    Oh, wait! I meant to say that I didn't even think of the language as an issue. How silly of me! I read a ton of historical fiction, a ton of Brit lit, and a ton of classic Brit lit so I'm really familiar with the language. Again, how silly of me to not even remember that when I first got into this stuff there was that barrier. It's like learning all the lingo that goes along with a new hobby...

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  6. Welcome, and thank you for your thoughtful comment.

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