On Rereading Persuasion

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.

  1. More on that in another post. Complete with a detailed description of just how hard I wish to shake Selden and Lily Bart. Aaargh! []
  2. At the time there was no Romance with a capital R . . . []


  1. Rose Fox on #

    I’ve been doing this backwards: never read any Austen, but have been watching all the cinematic/televised versions that are available through Netflix. (Just finished episode 4 of the 1972 BBC Emma.) The 1995 film of Persuasion is by far the best I’ve encountered so far, from casting to acting to plot to words. The moment at the last, when Anne’s father says, “You want to marry Anne? Whatever for?”, and Wentworth doesn’t even answer because he’s gazing with such love at his beautiful, intelligent, principled wife-to-be… such a triumph for every nerdy girl who was dismissed or misunderstood by family and peers!

    If you haven’t seen that film, I do highly recommend it.

  2. Marisa on #

    Absolutely my most favorite book of all times!

  3. Sherwood on #

    Oh, yes, yes! Re rank. Notice how pretty much all of Austen’s titled people are dolts and poops and snobs? (Lady catherine, Lady Dalrymple, Sir Walter, etc)

  4. Justine on #

    Sherwood: It is pleasing, isn’t it? I do worry that Darcy does not fully understand that character is everything and birth nothing by the end of P&P. But I have high hopes that Lizzy will keep on educating him.

  5. Laura on #

    I need to disagree with your thoughts on Lady Russell. She is NOT vile. She loved Anne like a daughter. She was only looking out for her name and her place in society. If you recall, Lady Russell is also the one who tells Mr Elliot that he must leave the house because he has squandered the fortune. It is a delicate situation, but because she is so respected, it is up to her (by Anne, no less) to explain to her Mr Elliot that retrenching is the way to go.

    At the time, Wentworth was not of the same station as Anne. At the time that is very important in marriage acts. No one knew that he would become a war hero, and therefore become quite wealthy. Anne adores Lady Russell. Her direction may not have been correct, but she did it because she loved Anne.

    Anne’s sisters, father, cousin and Mrs Clay, now they are vile.

  6. Laura on #

    Also, Austen writes specifically that Darcy learns to laugh thanks to his wife. It’s right there towards the end of the story. Elizabeth is teaching him. And he most likely became a better person. But he already was a good person, everyone who knew him intimately, liked him very much. Mrs Reynolds is the one who sells Darcy to Elizabeth.

    PS: I am an Austen evangelist. I could debate her books til the cows came home:)

  7. Justine on #

    Laura: I take it you mean Sir Walter when you write Mr Elliot? Mr Elliot is Anne’s vile cousin. And, yes, he’s truly repugnant.

    I can’t be so hard on Mrs Clay. She’s yet another poor woman dependent on the kindness of strangers.

  8. Laura on #

    Yes, Sir Walter.

    Mrs Clay is not dependent on the kindness of strangers, she is most likely having an ‘affair’ with Sir Walter and is probably shtooping Mr Elliot as well. She is a vile woman. During one JASNA session the discussion was on the spots on Mrs Clay face. (the spots on Mrs Clay face perhaps did not mean what we take as pimples, but of syphilis.) This is a woman whose reputation is not very good. Especially one so young, who is a widow.

    I was a member of pemberley.com which has exhaustively studied each and every Austen book and juvenilia. Type in Mrs Clay and you’ll get different reactions from different people, but most people will agree with me. She is vile.

  9. Lizabelle on #

    Ah, my favourite Austen book, but I find reading it quite a painful experience. It hurts so much to be Anne, overlooked and underestimated, even though she wins out in the end. I always felt there was a lot of Jane Austen herself in Anne.

  10. Jonathan Walker on #

    Is also my favourite Austen novel, because it is about the possibility of a second chance after ruined expectations, although it is rather shocking to consider that Anne, the supposed old maid, is (if I remember correctly) actually a youngster of 27!

  11. Justine on #

    Laura: I am familiar with those theories. I don’t happen to agree with them since a man like Sir Walter would not marry a woman he was already sleeping wtih. Mrs Clay would be aware of that. And Mr Elliot and Lady Russell are extremely concerned about that possibility.

    Besides which why does a woman using what talents she has make her necessarily vile? I’m sure you recognised that the “kindness of strangers” quote comes from A Street Car Named Desire about another woman who used her charms to get by.

    I’m sure you don’t mean to come across as hectoring but comments like

    “I was a member of pemberley.com which has exhaustively studied each and every Austen book and juvenilia. Type in Mrs Clay and you’ll get different reactions from different people, but most people will agree with me. She is vile.”

    do not read well.

    Many of the people commenting on Austen here are well versed in JA’s work. You are not a lone expert. Nor are your views the final word. But even if you were the only expert it would be immaterial. This little community is interested in a variety of views even from people coming across Jane Austen (or whatever we happen to be discussing) for the very first time. If you wish to continue commenting here please modify your tone.

  12. Sherwood on #

    I believe that one of the very best things about Austen is that we can read these books and find positive and negative characteristics in her people that resonate with our own experience, and thus we react to them as we do to people we know–we like some, detest others, and are indifferent to a third set. And though most agree on Mrs. Norris and Lady C and the horrid Dashwoods, we don’t always react the same to others. I think that is part of the fun, because no one but J.A. herself had the inside skinny on the characters, and from what little has come down to us through her family, she kept that inside knowledge pretty tight.

    That said, I would be very surprised if Austen, who was precise, meant Mrs. Clay’s freckles to be syphilis sordes. The fact that the freckles are just as visible as ever to Anne, inspite of Sir Walter’s assurance that they have been “done away with” by the creams he advised (which I think hints that he uses them), seems fairly obvious an example of more of the Elliott self-delusion. If the sordes had vanished (as apparentlyly they do in second stage syph) then Anne would not have seen the freckles looking the same as ever, would she?

    The situation of Mrs. Clay can be read as yet another of Austen’s examples of how choices lead to an end. Lydia Bennett breaks the rules, and ends up a penniless Mrs. Wickham with a worthless husband–chosen at age fifteen. We don’t get the already trite death by consumption for having sinned. Mrs. Clay, widow, with no money, makes somewhat the same choices that Charlotte does: she’ll be dogsbody to two highly unpleasant people in hopes of gaining a respectable place. But she in turn lets herself be seduced by an even cagier adventurer, Mr. Elliott . . . and Austen doesn’t tell us which of them will end up with the upper hand. Their reward is having to live with one another.

  13. Jonathan Walker on #

    P.s. … Whereas Northanger Abbey is also my least favourite Austen novel, because – in direct contrast to Persuasion – it is a celebration of immaturity.

  14. Laura on #

    Hectoring was not intended nor was my tone meant to be rude. I definitely think Sherwood is correct in that we take away what we will from the various ‘vile’ characters that Austen has created.

    I read PERSUASION, right after I read PRIDE & PREJUDICE and just remembered how dark the story was compared to the light airiness of P&P. Upon several readings, I really appreciated Lady Russell. Sir Walter was ridiculousness personified.

    Again, I never meant any rudeness. I was just trying to state that there of course, are many different perceptions of each and every Austen character. We can also do that with Bronte, Forster, and Dickens.

    PS: Emma is my least favorite Austen. Funny, eh? 🙂

  15. Justine on #

    Sherwood: Exactly so. Thank you!

    And part of that, of course, is in how we see ourselves. Does our fear that we are a bit of Sir Walter or a Mr Collins make us more likely to judge them? Or less likely?

    Jonathan: I used to think that but a re-read of NA left me more amused that I had previously been. As I said in this previous post the romance does not work for me at all but there are many other pleasures.

    On the other hand, it may well be my least favourite but I’d have to reread S&S and MP to know for sure. At one time MP was my least favourite.

    I guess what I’m saying is that there’s something to like in all Austen’s book.

  16. Julia Rios on #

    Oh, Persuasion! I love it so! Across Austen in general, I particularly like that even minor characters have implied depth. I love that people can champion or decry Lady Russell because there’s something there to work with. And yes, I love the way that Anne loves Wentworth regardless of his station, and that a title does not guarantee goodness for anyone. Also, I really love the Crofts.

  17. Laura on #

    Northanger Abbey makes me laugh. I just love the silliness of it all! Mansfield Park is could be quite scandalous, but Austen reins it in. I think there is more of Austen in MP in her beliefs.

    Oh, and I think I’ve met plenty of Mr Collins:)

  18. Justine on #

    Julia: Oh, I adore the Crofts! One of my favourite portraits of a happy marriage. Like Nick & Nora only without the alcohol. (Okay, not much like Nick & Nora.) I love that bit when Anne is in the carriage with them and it’s clear they drive in tandem. Dangerously so! (So maybe a bit like Nick & Nora after all.)

  19. Jonathan Walker on #

    Justine: Maybe I should reread Northanger Abbey. I originally read it as a teen, and perhaps my critical reaction then was actually a form of overcompensation. Nowadays I am far less mature than I used to be, and so I might enjoy it more …

  20. Jennifer on #

    Persuasion is my favourite JA book, so I just had to say I LOVED this post!! I feel like there’s a little bit of Anne in every girl, which warms my heart. 😀
    There’s a fabulous modern re-take novel on Persuasion called Jane Austen in Scarsdale: Love, Death and the SATs (if you’re interested in that sort of fanfic-ish novel).

  21. mb on #

    One thing Mansfield Park shows us (in Fanny parents) is why Lady Russell would discourage Anne’s marriage to Wentworth. It was a gamble.

  22. Aishwarya on #

    Oh Persuasion. It’s Anne’s age that really makes this book for me. I love Austen and I love Heyeresque regency romances, but it’s the books where the heroines are real adults who have had time to grow into themselves that really get me.

  23. rockinlibrarian on #

    I am not big into romances, which is probably why, when reading the Northanger Abbey post, I wanted to say “Who cares? It’s FUNNY!” I love Northanger Abbey, and I absolutely love Jane Austen, but I don’t read her books for the romance… except Persuasion. Persuasion is absolutely THE book I go to when I’m in the mood for a romance. It’s got the funny moments in it too, but the prevailing mood is much more romantic than witty. When I first read it, my most passionate unrequited crush had just gone off to college and gotten a girlfriend, so the book fed all my someday-this-terrible-separation-will-be-fixed fantasies! I’ve always wondered if my intense love for the romance in this book is just a personal thing colored by my own experiences, so it’s nice to see that it’s not just me, and this really is a great romance!

  24. Gillian A on #

    I love Persuasion: it is my joint favourite with Pride and Prejudice. Nevertheless, I always feel that it is a less finished / polished novel that P&P and Emma. I don’t know if this perception is valid or not. I know the novel was published posthumously, but am not sure whether she had really finished with it before her death or not. What do other people think?

    With regard to Mrs Clay, I’m never quite sure just how impecunious she is. Isn’t her father Sir Walter’s solicitor? If so, presumably her father can look out for her to some extent (unless Sir W is economising on his legal bills). Depends, I suppose on how many brothers and sisters she has. Also, I suppose the social circle she gets to move in with the Elliots would be beyond her means as a solicitor’s widowed daughter, but since that society is principally Sir W and Anne, I’m not convinced that’s an actual advantage.

    I am very glad to live in the 21st Century and be able to make my own way in the world and not have to wait for some man.

  25. sylvia_rachel on #

    Oh, Persuasion! I love that book so, so much. More than any of the rest of Austen, even.

    I love the passion and tension between Wentworth and Anne. I love that Anne is a real musician, but not a showoff; I love the book’s celebration of second chances; I love that Anne is shy and quiet and intelligent and has rock-solid integrity, yet never comes across as a goody two-shoes. As a middle child myself, I love the depiction of the three sisters with Anne in the middle, the way she’s learned over the years to steer a course between Elizabeth’s demands and Mary’s so as to spare herself and everyone else the worst excesses of both — and even more, I love that she quietly triumphs over both of them at the end of the book, because she deserves it. Anne and Wentworth deserve each other, in the best way. And OMG the Crofts, the charming adorable Crofts! (I like the Harvilles, too.)

    And, of course, I enjoy laughing at Sir Walter et al. 😉

    I hadn’t thought of it as satirizing The Big Mis, but I think that’s a really good point. The only bit of the story that I have a bit of difficulty with is Mrs Smith’s withholding of the crucial information about Mr Elliot: I really like Mrs Smith and I want to see her as a good person, so it … irks me, I guess, that she is prepared to let Anne marry a man she knows to be a bounder and a cad and perhaps worse, on the totally unsupported theory that maybe being in love with Anne has reformed him. But it all turns out okay, so …

    (Oh, and also at the beginning of the book I always have to firmly put aside my disbelief that a woman as awesome as the late Lady Elliot is supposed by all the characters to have been would ever be such a doofus as to marry Sir Walter.)

    Austen’s portraits of marriages are one of the most interesting things about her work for me. There are happy and unhappy marriages in all the books (I think: I haven’t read NA in a very long time), but they’re all different from each other. Each book is full of different kinds of marriages to which the heroine’s choices might possibly lead her … it’s fascinating 🙂

  26. Marilyn Brant on #

    I am coming to this late, but I very much enjoyed your post on Persuasion (Anne and Wentworth’s romance is one for the ages) and just had to add that I *love* Jane. I LOVE her and her writing without reserve. And I could hug you for refusing to allow any hater-posts here. 🙂 P&P was the Austen novel I read first and took to heart; thus, it will always be my sentimental favorite. Persuasion is my close second, however, and I think Jane’s perceptions of human behavior were very well honed by the time she wrote it, and her comic abilities in narration nearly perfect. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on the book!

  27. Kate on #

    I just finished reading Northanger Abbey and Persuasion and enjoyed reading this post and others thoughts on them. Also, reading them side-by-side was an interesting exercise because they’re so different! I suppose the age of the heroines is one factor, or their place chronilogically in Austen’s writing.

    I agree with the praise of Anne’s character and the romance between Wentworth and Anne, but there were a few points in Persuasion where I was unsettled. I liked the Musgrove sisters, though I think I’m meant to dislike them, or disapprove of their high spirits and liberal education. I felt so much for Anne, but I liked Louisa and I found it hard to begrudge her and Wentworth happiness when it seemed like they might be love (in the scene where they walk to the Hayter’s and Anne overhears Louisa and Wentworth conversing). So it almost made Captain Benwick’s appearance and Louisa’s fall seem too convenient, and their subsequent falling in love almost inappropriate. I sympathized with the Harvilles on Fanny’s behalf, and I lamented the replacement of Louisa’s energy and vivaciousness with a sort of melancholic love.

    It reminded me a little of Sense and Sensibility where Marianne comes out of her illness more subdued and ready at last to appreciate and marry Colonel Brandon. But Colonel Brandon deserved that appreciation and love, after all, while Benwick seems just a little bit foolish.

    So I suppose Persuasion had a romance I loved, but also a background romance I felt uncomfortable with. I found my copy of Karen Joy Fowler’s The Jane Austen Book Club and reread the chapter on Persuasion and was surprised to find the same opinion, otherwise I would just think I was being ridiculous and not bring it up. But does anyone else have thoughts on Louisa and Benwick?

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