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Jane Austen: Persuasion (1818)

By Caroline

Persuasion

After having read Mansfield Park and liking it so much (as you can see here) I decided to read Persuasion, which has been mentioned by so many in the comments as their favorite Jane Austen novel. The two books couldn’t be more different. I found Persuasion much more mature, more subtle, less witty, more elegant and a bit melancholic. It’s a perfect novel, there is nothing superfluous in it; the story and the characters are rounded and the way their emotions are shown is believable and very touching. There is a lot of sadness and heartache in this novel, but, since it’s an Austen novel, the good characters are rewarded. Despite of all of this, I’m not sure I prefer it to Pride and Prejudice or Mansfield Park. The earlier novels have some imperfections, but they also show an exuberance and wit, which I enjoy. From the point of view of the love story, I think Persuasion is my favorite and I like Anne Elliot and Captain Wentworth as much or even more as Elizabeth Bennet and Mr Darcy, but I missed some of the irony and playfulness of the earlier novels. On the other hand Persuasion is very subtle and I love the more urban settings, Lyme Regis and Bath, which add to its appeal.

Anne Elliot is one of three sisters who lost their mother at an early age and grew up with a silly and vain father who, on top of that, is a spendthrift. The most important things to him and his eldest daughter, Elizabeth, who is his female counterpart, are looks and titles. Being a baronet is of the utmost importance to him. The gentle and sensible Anne suffers a great deal through their coldness and superficiality and if it wasn’t for her mother’s old friend Lady Russell, who has become her mentor, she’d be bad off in a family of self-centred, pompous fools. Her younger sister Mary is not much better and at that a hypochondriac. When the novel starts the Elliots are forced to leave Kellynch Hall and find cheaper lodgings in Bath because Sir Elliot and Elizabeth have been spending far too much. The estate will be let to Admiral Croft and his wife. Mrs Croft is the sister of Captain Wentworth, the man Anne Elliot once loved and – persuaded by Lady Russell – refused to marry because he had no money and no status yet.

Eight years later Captain Wentworth is still as handsome and likable as he used to be, but he’s also very rich. Anne who has refused every suitor, soon regrets bitterly that she refused him. Captain Wentworth on his side is still hurt and resentful. He hasn’t forgotten Anne but cannot forgive her.

Persuasion is often called a “novel of second chances”, and that’s what the love story is all about, but Austen novels are always about much more than just love and marriage. Money and the criticism of a superficial society which attached too much worth to it are central themes. In Persuasion we find a similar situation as in Pride and Prejudice: a rich man with no male heir. The way this is handled is central to the society and the times in which Jane Austen lived but, thankfully, so different from now. Should Sir Elliot die, the estate would go to a distant male relative and not to one of his daughters. It seems as if the property was tied to the name only and not so much to the family. Someone who may never even have seen a house, may be living in it, while those who spent there all their lives have to move out.This is so incomprehensible for us, feels so incredibly unjust that whole series, like Downtown Abbey, illustrating this practice, are sure to generate our interest.

A large part of the second story line in Persuasion focusses on this aspect. There is an heir, but he is proud and arrogant, and it is very painful for everyone to imagine he will be living in Kellynch Hall. However, since Sir Elliot is still a good-looking man, it’s not impossible that he remarries. If a younger wife would give birth to a son, the whole situation would look entirely different. While the love story is central the “hunt” for the estate and the ensuing complications are no less important.

I’ve read all of Jane Austen’s longer novels now and it’s quite fascinating to look back, to compare, find similarities, spot differences. I’m currently reading Claire Tomalin’s Jane Austen biography and it adds another layer. So much that is mentioned in Tomalin’s book can be found in the novels. I noticed that Jane Austen never describes London, but I didn’t know she’d never been there.

Nowadays I tend to jump from one author to the next, but it has a special appeal to read everything of one writer because the books are always linked and when you’ve read them all, you can see, that despite the differences, the individual books together form a whole. In Jane Austen’s case, reading all of her books, showed all of her novels are full of vivid portraits and character sketches, full of well-observed behavior and show the many facets of romantic attachment. But while there are similarities in the themes, there is a huge difference in mood.


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