This past Saturday I was Skyping with my friend Vivike, and I mentioned I had just finished Persuasion. Together, we pondered why Pride & Prejudice is the most popular of Jane Austen's work, despite the fact that some of her later efforts, such as Emma and, yes, Persuasion, are manifestly superior. We put on our literary snob hats and monocles and lamented the popular interpretation of Pride & Prejudice as a romance in the way we think about romance today, an interpretation that we feel misses the mark when it comes to perceiving that novel's true potential for greatness. And we condemned Colin Firth for reifying Mr. Darcy, an act that has very probably doomed us all to the feverish exclamations of women and men the world over: "Oh, Mr. Darcy!"
But I digress.
I have not always been a fan of Jane Austen, because I too was once young and foolish (and I still am in many ways). However, I have now seen the light; with each successive work, Austen impresses me more and more. And one day I will definitely revisit books I've read before—in particular, Pride & Prejudice and Sense & Sensibility—to see if my opinions of them have altered as my esteem for Austen has increased. Persuasion has done nothing to diminish her in my eyes, and it might be my favourite Austen novel. Perhaps that's because, as the professor who wrote the introduction to this edition insists, it is Austen's most "mature" work. I can't really speak to that; I'm not much of an Austen critic. Yet there are unique aspects of Persuasion that I find, well, persuasive.
Anne Elliot is indubitably the heroine of Persuasion, but for most of the book she is a minor character in her own life. Austen gives us privileged access to her thoughts, but we get to hear very little of what she says to other characters. Indeed, we're given to understand that she has very little influence at all; when someone does take her advice, it's usually because it only justifies the course of action he or she wanted to take in the first place. (But isn't that oh so true of life in general?) Anne's father and two sisters look askance at her because she is not as obsessed with social status as they are. When she learns her father, Sir Walter, is in some financial difficulty, she has no qualms about trimming their expenses in extreme ways, including but not limited to renting out their family estate. Also, Anne almost married a naval officer, Frederick Wentworth, eight years prior to the beginning of the book. It was a love match, but "fortunately" for Anne, the kindly Lady Russell persuaded her that love was not enough: Wentworth was not good enough. Thank goodness Anne didn't make that mistake!
For those of us reading this in the twenty-first century, it is all too easy to view Anne as the only sensible character in the book. We place her on a pedestal above the vanity of Sir Walter and Elizabeth, the preoccupation with precedence that plagues Mary, and the obsession with his inheritance that motivates Mr. Elliot in all his machinations. Anne is our class-defying heroine: she keeps up her connections to Mrs. Smith, who has fallen on hard times and is no longer respectable enough for a lady of Anne's status; she rebuffs Mr. Elliot, who is in every sense but character a perfect catch; and yes, she marries Captain Wentworth. This, after all, an Austen novel. And so it isn't as simple as "Anne = good" and "others = bad". Jane Austen, last time I checked, did not write Golden Age comic books. (Though, come to think of it, that would have been awesome.)
It's tempting to read Austen as some kind of incredibly subversive diatribe against class, but let's not go all Marxist on Ms. Austen's … err … well, let's not go all Marxist, shall we? It's true that Austen is very critical of some of her contemporary society's notions about marriage and how the quality of one's character relates to one's breeding. She is, we may go as far as to say, quite satirical, and it is this wit that often makes her books so enjoyable to read. Persuasion opens with an extended description of how Sir Walter spends his time: reading his own entry in the Baronetage of England (which is tantamount to someone spending all day re-reading his or her Facebook profile) and preening in front of his massive bedroom mirror. Sir Walter is vain in every sense of the word, concerned not only with his position in society but his exterior appearance as well. So Austen begins the book in fine form, mocking the emptiness that accompanies all those in the upper class who place style above substance. Or, as Mr. Elliot pompously confirms:
Lady Russell confessed that she had expected something better, but yet "it was an acquaintance worth having," and when Anne ventured to speak her opinion of them to Mr. Elliot, he agreed to their being nothing in themselves, but still maintained that as a family connexion, as good company, as those who would collect good company around them, they had their value. Anne smiled and said,
"My idea of good company, Mr. Elliot, is the company of clever, well-informed people, who have a great deal of conversation; that is what I call good company."
"You are mistaken," said he gently, "that is not good company, that is the best. Good company requires only birth, education and manners, and with regard to education is not very nice.…"
I love how Austen so deftly alerts the reader, in so few words, to the obvious inadequacy of the runner-up suitors. It's almost as if she has all the unworthy men wear T-shirts declaring, "I am a gigantic tool." Ironically, Mr. Elliot has quite a bit more personality than Captain Wentworth, who always seems rather distant up until his passionate epistolary plea for Anne's heart.
Buried among the satire, however, are gentle hints that sometimes conformity is well and good. This passage of Anne's, from the penultimate chapter, is the most obvious such incident:
I have been thinking over the past, and trying impartially to judge of the right and wrong, I mean with regard to myself; and I must believe that I was right, much as I suffered from it, that I was perfectly right in being guided by the friend whom you will love better than you do now. To me, she was in the place of a parent. Do not mistake me, however. I am not saying that she did not err in her advice. It was, perhaps, one of those cases in which advice is good or bad only as the event decides; and for myself, I certainly never should, in any circumstance of tolerable similarity, give such advice. But I mean, that I was right in submitting to her, and that if I had done otherwise, I should have suffered more in continuing the engagement than I did even in giving it up, because I should have suffered in my conscience. I have now, as far as such a sentiment is allowable in human nature, nothing to reproach myself with; and if I mistake not, a strong sense of duty is no bad part of a woman's portion.
This is an incredibly nuanced perspective. (I love it more every time I read it, particularly that phrase, "in any circumstance of tolerable similarity.") And this is why I wince when people refer to Austen's works as "romances" in the modern sense of the word; I feel like they are missing out on so much! Anne here is saying that she thinks Lady Russell's advice was wrong but that she was right in submitting to it, because that was her duty. Lady Russell was acting in loco parentis, and Anne is not such a stranger to propriety that she would disregard Lady Russell's advice just to follow her heart. Thematically speaking, that is: love does not conquer all; love tempered with reason and maturity conquers all.
So my interpretation of Jane Austen, if you will permit me such folly, is that she is neither a hardcore subversive class warrior nor a conservative champion of the status quo. She is a realist, dissatisfied enough with her society to mock it but optimistic enough to hope that some people find happiness even under the present regime. Marriage is Austen's microcosm for all these social issues, for she herself did not married, and she has her class to thank in part for that privilege and modicum of independence. And as I become more conscious of class, and of my own privileges and biases, I am more fascinated by how Austen chooses to write about her own time and her own life.
Of course, this is just a small part of Persuasion, and maybe not even the best or the most important part. It is so many things—among them, yes, a romance. Doubtless this chimerical nature is a reason for its everlasting appeal and its status as a classic. Of course, not everyone is going to like it, and I entertained myself by reading some of the hilarious 1-star reviews before I commenced writing this one. The common complaint was one of boredom, and I can't help but sigh. Maybe I'm weird. No, I am weird, and I like it. I find Jane Austen fascinating and exciting for the same reasons that I rock out to classical music, believe that science preserves our sense of wonder rather than replacing it with one of purposelessness, and dance like no one is watching even though people always are. Life is too short and too precious to spend more than an iota of it bored. So I try to find entertainment and edification in as much of literature's vast panoply as I possibly can, and while I don't always succeed, I will always make the most of it (even if all that means is a snarky book review).
Sure, Persuasion suffers from a conspicuous lack of zombies, or even sea monsters. And there are no massive CGI explosions. Not a single one! Curiously enough, Persuasion manages to step up, rise above these debilitating shortcomings, and deliver a worthwhile story of romance deferred and relationships rekindled. Go figure.