“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.”
I have to admit to having been a little dismissive of Jane Austen sometimes. I’m not a big romance reader and I tend to associate Austen with those sorts of novels, albeit ones with drawing rooms and balls and petticoats. It’s unfair really; I know she’s better than that. Until now I’d only read one other Austen novel, Pride & Prejudice (of course), and liked it very much – in my eyes that gives Austen a 100% success rate so far. So why do I feel all snobbish about her work? I don’t know. I am a mystery to myself sometimes.
Anyway, I bought Persuasion on the spur of the moment one lunchtime last week. It was a decision made purely on the basis of the cover art. I want that red cape.
Persuasion was Austen’s last completed book and was published shortly after her death. Consequently its heroine, Anne Elliot, feels very grown up: she’s 27, which in Austen years is practically ancient. Eight years before the novel begins Anne was engaged to the handsome Captain Wentworth but broke off the engagement quite suddenly at the encouragement of her family and friends who all felt that he wasn’t rich or important enough for her. She’s regretted it ever since, so much so that she’s now a shadow of her former self: thinner, plainer, overlooked by her father and disdained by her stupid sisters. She’s an almost silent presence in the first few chapters, at least until Captain Wentworth returns from sea after a long absence. He’s now rich, and still single, but he makes it very clear that he’s moving on with his life and hasn’t forgiven Anne for her rejection.
It took me a while to shake off the comparisons to Pride & Prejudice but Persuasion got much better when I did so. Anne isn’t spirited and vivacious like Elizabeth Bennett; the other characters flutter around her and she stays silent. She’s an almost invisible presence among them for much of the first half. To begin with you don’t even really know quite how she feels about Wentworth; I mean, she’s inevitably nervous and a bit embarrassed about seeing him for the first time since she jilted him all those years ago, but does she love him? She plays her cards close to her chest. It’s nice to see her come to life gradually as you realise how much she’s concealing inside. Austen does this really well I think and Anne becomes a much more involving character as the book progresses.
I didn’t think Wentworth was as well developed, which is a shame but was perhaps inevitable since he spends so much of the book avoiding Anne. They barely say two words to each other for ages; it’s a clever way of building the tension between them. One of my favourite things about Pride & Prejudice (comparisons again!) is all that heated banter between Elizabeth and Darcy, when they can’t decide whether they’re attracted to each other or if they just really can’t stand each other. There isn’t any much of that here of course; Anne is quiet and reserved so the focus is very much on her thoughts rather than her conversation. This is a much more restrained romance and this feeling is emphasised by the lack of direct speech. Even during the key final scenes much of the speech is reported. It had the odd effect of making me feel like I’d been excluded from the romantic pay off, like I was watching it from a distance. It was a bit frustrating after the drama of the previous scene.
This is actually quite a minor complaint and I don’t really want to sound like I’m having a whinge about Persuasion because I did really like it. It had me hooked for three days and I loved Anne Elliot dearly; she felt like normal person. It’s so nicely written, so witty and sensible, that I was a bit sad to see it end. On this basis Austen maintains her 100% success rate.