Well, that was pure unalloyed pleasure. Though I wish I’d written this post immediately after finishing Persuasion, rather than now, when I’m still in post traumatic stress from having just read House of Mirth for the first time.1
Heh hem. Persuasion. Love it. Remains my favourite Jane Austen. With Pride & Prejudice only slightly behind. As I’m doing all this (re)reading in order to think about romance and heroines let’s start there.
The Romance: This books seethes. It’s full of glances, almost everything between Anne & Wentworth is unspoken. Until they get to Bath that is, which doesn’t happen until at least two thirds into the book. The scene where Wentworth writes his passionate letter remains one of my favourites in any book ever. I first read Anne’s speech as a littlie but I still hug it to my chest. Here’s a fave bit:
“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.”
I love that Wentworth is not of noble birth. I love that Anne learns that who you are is much more important than what you were born. Though it does seem she never cared about birth or status because she was more than happy to marry Wentworth at 19. It was smelly Lady Russell who talked her out of it. I like to think that Russell learns at the end of the book that you can be born a prince and still be a vulgar moron, like Anne Elliot’s father, but I find myself not entirely believing it. She’s just a bit too smug and satisfied by her own opinions for my liking. Yet unlike Sir Walter or Anne’s sisters she’s smart so there’s less excuse for it.
One thing I was struck by in this read was Jane Austen’s critique of the artificial means by which romances keep their lovers apart. At the time I’m not sure it was the staple of romance that is now.2 But I can’t tell you how many Romances I’ve read or romcoms I’ve watched where the stupid misunderstanding/transparent lie by “best friend”/missdelivered letter/whatever that has kept the lovers apart is tissue thin and unbelievable. In Persuasion I believe it. Yet here is Wentworth realising they could have been together sooner:
“But I too have been thinking over the past, and a question has suggested itself, whether there may not have been one person more my enemy even than that lady? My own self. Tell me if, when I returned to England in the year eight, with a few thousand pounds, and was posted into the Laconia, if I had then written to you, would you have answered my letter? Would you, in short, have renewed the engagement then?”
“Would I!” was all her answer; but the accent was decisive enough.
I can’t help reading that as a swipe at all the dumb misunderstandings that are used over and over that could be so simply resolved. But, of course, in Persuasion Wentworth’s reasons for not trying to reconcile sooner are perfectly clear: He thinks his chances are zero. The Elliots and Lady Russell were perfectly vile. They persuaded the love of his life to dump his arse. And BEING DUMPED? It takes a while to recover. Only the Mr Collineses of the world keep on trying and that’s only because they don’t get they’ve been dumped. As soon as they do they’re off with the nearest Charlotte.
I love Anne and Wentworth’s relationship. I love that it’s agony to them when they are not able to speak and when they are at last, the words come gushing out. There is so much to share, so much to tell that only the other would understand. I love Anne’s restraint and well, manliness. And Wentworth’s womanly passion. It’s he that’s always trembling with emotion, not Anne. LOVE THAT.
I’d also forgotten how funny Persuasion is, you know, in between the seething passion. This bit where Sir Elliot is unhappy with the women and men of Bath cracks me up. Tell me you haven’t known someone like this:
“He hoped she might make some amends for the many very plain faces he was continually passing in the streets. The worst of Bath was the number of its plain women. He did not mean to say that there were no pretty women, but the number of the plain was out of all proportion. He had frequently observed, as he walked, that one handsome face would be followed by thirty, or five-and-thirty frights; and once, as he had stood in a shop on Bond Street, he had counted eighty-seven women go by, one after another, without there being a tolerable face among them. It had been a frosty morning, to be sure, a sharp frost, which hardly one woman in a thousand could stand the test of. But still, there certainly were a dreadful multitude of ugly women in Bath; and as for the men! they were infinitely worse. Such scarecrows as the streets were full of! It was evident how little the women were used to the sight of anything tolerable, by the effect which a man of decent appearance produced. He had never walked anywhere arm-in-arm with Colonel Wallis (who was a fine military figure, though sandy-haired) without observing that every woman’s eye was upon him; every woman’s eye was sure to be upon Colonel Wallis.” Modest Sir Walter! He was not allowed to escape, however. His daughter and Mrs Clay united in hinting that Colonel Wallis’s companion might have as good a figure as Colonel Wallis, and certainly was not sandy-haired.
I know that’s a long quote but I could not resist. Modest Sir Walter, indeed.
In conclusion: Persuasion rocks out loud. And if I ever write a romantic heroine as strong and principled and honourable yet not boring or annoying as Anne Elliot then I will die a very happy writer. Persuasion is an incredible contrast with House of Mirth. Both Anne and Lily Bart’s existence are constrained by expectations of their class and sex. Anne cannot sail off to sea to make her fortune without forfeiting everything. And Lily can be disgraced as a whore, while still a virgin. I ached for both of them. My compassion for Charlotte and her dreadful marriage in Pride and Prejudice embiggened once again. I’m so glad I was born when I was and not when they were.
Note: This is not the place to declare your hatred of Jane Austen. We’re here to discuss our love. I’m sure there’s a Jane Austen haters forum you can find somewhere to share your hate. Yes, your hate will be deleted. Yes, I had to delete quite a number of JA haters from the Northanger Abbey discussion.