November 1, 2020

I stayed up late last night finishing “Persuasion.”  I was unable to put this novel down toward its end, though I had found the first half quite difficult. 

I was honestly confused trying to keep clear the characters and their family relations; and their houses.  I found Austen still to be unhelpful with her pronouns, and her sentences still convoluted and ponderous (a failing in my own writing, admittedly).

And in this novel when Austen is speaking of characters in the third person there are nevertheless, sometimes, quotation marks around the passages, as if the characters are speaking.  I found this happened once in “P&P”, but I thought it was a typographical error, so it became very confusing when I kept finding it in “Persuasion.”  Eventually I started to expect it, and it even made some sense:  these are all passages which describe what the characters are saying in conversation. 

The novel was published posthumously.  Maybe Austen merely marked these passages off, intending to return to them later and convert them into dialogue?

The novel itself is less humorous than “P&P” and maybe less entertaining chapter-for-chapter, but the last few chapters are just wonderful, and worth the prior difficulties I encountered.

Anne Elliot’s situation is a little difficult to relate to.  This is not like life at the Bennets, which might be a little ridiculous but feels recognizable.  This is more like living with the Darcys, I’m guessing.  The Elliots are very much upper-crust, and overpoweringly stuffy.  They’re ridiculous, but so serious that you can’t even laugh at them the way you can laugh at Mr. Collins, who might have upper-crust pretensions but fumbles constantly in his efforts to embrace the highest-of-the-high.  Sir Elliot and his family are the real thing, and thus completely uninteresting.

But that is not Austen’s failing.  It might make the situation less relatable at first, but Austen paints them intentionally as uninteresting, and we see everything through the point of view of Anne Elliot, who is a genuine human being, very relatable and, maybe, quite close to Jane Austen herself, at least in intellect, emotion and temperament.

Anne is described early on as a quiet listener whom everyone relies on, and calls on to be umpire in their disputes.  I’m right there with you, Anne.

She’s a reader who loves genuine conversation rather than small-talk; an introvert who’s been wounded in love, and is still unrecovered from the loss, eight years earlier, of her engagement to Frederick Wentworth.  “[S]he had been too dependent on time alone; no aid had been given in change of place (except in one visit to Bath soon after the rupture), or in any novelty or enlargement of society. No one had ever come within the Kellynch circle, who could bear a comparison with Frederick Wentworth, as he stood in her memory. No second attachment, the only thoroughly natural, happy, and sufficient cure, at her time of life, had been possible to the nice tone of her mind, the fastidiousness of her taste, in the small limits of the society around them.”

Some of this may be reflected in Austen herself (I don’t know too much of her biography, beyond her remaining unmarried), and such a character is not original of course, but it’s interesting what Austen says about how bookishness can hinder someone from recovering from such a loss in love.  Wentworth’s friend, a Captain Benwick, is a young widower, whose wife died while he was at sea, and now finds comfort in quiet friendship and especially in reading poetry:

Captain Wentworth believed it impossible for man to be more attached to woman than poor Benwick had been to Fanny Harville, or to be more deeply afflicted under the dreadful change. He considered his disposition as of the sort which must suffer heavily, uniting very strong feelings with quiet, serious, and retiring manners, and a decided taste for reading, and sedentary pursuits.

Anne finds a kindred spirit in this man, and actually recommends more prose for him in his reading diet; she reflects on how poetry is most dangerous for those who, by temperament and emotion, love it best.  She notes ruefully that she needs to take this advice just as badly as anyone.

But Austen does not leave it there, because there are a couple of twists coming.  Anne’s old friend from school, Mrs. Smith, has suffered more than Anne, has no prospects for remarrying, is an invalid and has little obvious chance of “enlarging” her society; but it turns out that she has recovered from the past, and lives a surprisingly spirited life with such friends as she has.  Visiting her old friend regularly, Anne –

watched, observed, reflected, and finally determined that this was not a case of fortitude or of resignation only. A submissive spirit might be patient, a strong understanding would supply resolution, but here was something more; here was that elasticity of mind, that disposition to be comforted, that power of turning readily from evil to good, and of finding employment which carried her out of herself, which was from nature alone. It was the choicest gift of Heaven; and Anne viewed her friend as one of those instances in which, by a merciful appointment, it seems designed to counterbalance almost every other want.

This is the first twist on the ideas that Austen had earlier put forward, about how people do and do not recover from losses.

The second twist comes in a discussion, late in the book, about whether men remain wounded by such losses as long as women do.  This mini-debate, like so many things in the last half of the book, is worth the price of admission, but what’s so interesting is what it does to the early observation that Anne has not recovered even eight years after her loss partly because she hasn’t enlarged her society; this had been reinforced by the portrayal of Captain Benwick, who is even more of an introvert. 

(Spoilers ahead.)

But it will turn out that Captain Wentworth has not recovered either, from the loss of Anne.  And he is an extrovert who has spent eight years doing nothing but “enlarging” his society, traveling around the world.  But his lingering devotion to Anne is not hard to believe, because the object of his love is manifestly worthy of it.  As he puts it, “A man does not recover from such a devotion of the heart to such a woman. He ought not; he does not.”  Captain Wentworth has seen much of the world and he recognizes that not everyone in your life will affect you so deeply; this does not happen every day and cannot be replicated easily.

I do think that in the Austen novels I’ve read and the movies I’ve seen the men are a bit idealized, not just when they’re good characters (who really are, in a sense, shining knights, though not ridiculous ones), but also when they’re scoundrels.  They’re all just a tad too black-and-white.  It’s actually easier for me to relate to the women in these novels – but that may be merely because they’re the central characters.  The men simply are not sketched as much, because they’re not central.

In the end, I can read a character like Captain Wentworth, and he feels only slightly idealized, but it’s not a genuine problem because there’s nothing wrong with characters who portray worthy ideals – at least so long as they’re built on real foundations; and Captain Wentworth’s feelings are entirely real and recognizable.

Hugh Thomson illustration

There is a brief discussion of what books can prove about these questions; someone mentions how many books speak of the inconstancy of women, rather than men.  (Would the knight of La Mancha kindly step forward here?)  I love it how Anne fairly bursts out of her shell at that moment and declares what you know must be Austen’s own feelings: 

“Yes, yes, if you please, no reference to examples in books.  Men have had every advantage of us in telling their own story.  Education has been theirs in so much higher a degree; the pen has been in their hands.  I will not allow books to prove anything.”

That last sentence is worthy to be put on any bookworm’s T-shirt.

The best chapter in the novel, I thought, was the one at the concert, late in the book.  But then every succeeding chapter kept getting better.

I’ve been curious about “Persuasion” ever since I saw the 1995 movie, though I didn’t really remember much about the story, other than Anne’s character.  Years later, I remembered the title “Persuasion” as if it must refer to a woman being persuaded to take a second chance with a man who had been lost to her years earlier.  But that’s not how Austen uses the word.  She is mainly referring to how Anne’s family persuaded her, unjustly, to give up Wentworth.

This is a novel about loss, and several characters have lost their spouses or their loves, in more than one way.  The situation is so common that by the time Mrs. Smith shows up, you can predict that she will turn out to be a widow too.  But loss is the novel’s chosen theme, and it was interesting to make a list of the various losses in the characters.

  • Anne lost Frederick Wentworth 8 years earlier when they called off their engagement
  • Mrs. Smith (Anne’s friend from school, formerly Miss Hamilton) lost her husband Charles, who died two years before
  • Captain Benwick lost his wife, Fanny Harville, who died in the past year while he was away at sea
  • Elizabeth Elliot lost Mr. William Elliot several years earlier, when he seemed to refuse their presumptive engagement.  Mr. Elliot in turn lost his wife, who died in the past year, after an unhappy marriage.
  • Sir Elliot lost Lady Elliot, who died 14 years before
  • Lady Russell is a widow of many years
  • Dowager Viscountess Dalrymple is a widow
  • Mrs. Penelope Clay is a widow, though we don’t learn this until late in the novel when Anne says that Sir Elliot should recall “that Mrs. Smith was not the only widow in Bath between thirty and forty, with little to live on, and no surname of dignity.”  Until then all we knew was that Mrs. Clay had returned to the house of her father (Sir Elliot’s lawyer, Mr. Shepard) “after an unprosperous marriage, with the additional burden of two children.”
  • Lastly, Mrs. Musgrove is grieving the relatively recent loss of her son Richard, who died while serving under Captain Wentworth.

It’s time to see that 1995 movie again, and perhaps check out a few other versions.

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