“Persuasion” by Jane Austen

Persuasion by Jane Austen, org. published in 1818, Amazon Kindle Edition.

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But I hate to hear you talking so like a fine gentleman, and as if women were all fine ladies, instead of rational creatures. We none of us expect to be in smooth water all our days.

Anne is perhaps the Jane Austen heroine who differs the most from the others; she’s old (by Austen-time standards), she’s estranged from her family, and she’s been decidedly unsuccessful in love, in fact she’s the author of a failed engagement. Austen heroines always have to go through hardship to win love, but in this case part of the hardship has already passed; her heart has been broken, by her own hand even. Anne fell victim to the manipulations of others, her (then) weak will and she sent her true love away. In contrast to other Austen novels this misunderstanding is not resolved within a short period of time, no, many years pass before the two heartbroken lovers meet again.

While Austen is known for writing romance novels, they’re always about more than that. There’s social satire, musings on family, friendship and marriage, there’s moral lessons to be learned and sense to be earned. For Anne, it’s independence she seeks. Having followed the advice of others before with disastrous results, she’s determined not to do so again. Even if it might not result in another chance at happiness: Captain Wentworth seems determined not to pay her any attention, having been burned in the past by her fickle nature. But few things mend as strangely and crookedly as broken hearts. Sometimes they hardly mend at all.

Honestly, and I just thought of this, Lady Russell mirrors Emma (the character from the Austen novel by the same name) in the way she tries to keep Anne from what she deems an inferior connection, and Persuasion then gives us the view from the other side. The view from the person who’s been manipulated, although Anne, in contrast to the ‘victims’ of Emma, seems more collected, and realizes her mistake almost straight after the fact – to no avail however; Wentworth is gone.

So what Anne sought, and is seeking, is independence, the chance to show the strength and loyalty of her heart, to not repeat the same mistake as last time. And it’s wonderful to see a character who’s already gone through character development and has arrived at who she is and who she wants to be, and watch her be that person. Persuasion is not the story of a mistake to be made and learned from – the mistake has been made, and Anne already learned from it. Rather it’s a waiting game. It’s Anne and Wentworth circling each other, one trying to prove he’s moved on, that she’s nothing to him, the other trying to lessen the pain of another heartbreak. It’s wonderful. It’s the story of two people who’ve hurt each other deeply, tentatively attempting to let the other go and finding instead they keep growing closer.

And I’m enamored by the musings on love presented in it. Reflections on who loves most ardently, most loyally, most strongly; men or women? Benwick and Anne discuss it at one point:

’But let me observe that all histories are against you – all stories, prose and verse. If I had such a memory as Benwick, I could bring you fifty quotations in a moment on my side the argument, and I do not think I ever opened a book in my life which had not something to say upon woman’s inconstancy. Songs and proverbs, all talk of woman’s fickleness. But perhaps you will say, these were all written by men.’

‘Perhaps I shall. Yes, yes, 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.’

God bless you, Jane. The conclusion, I think, that Persuasion presents is that both love equally badly or well depending on the situation and the person they love.

There’s a lot of layers to her representations of characters in this, and involving the navy automatically means involving a different type of character than usual. This is not merely the aristocracy vs the less fortunate, it’s the self-made man vs the inherited fortune. It’s title vs merit as well as appearance vs merit, the latter being what finally gets Anne her man; she is not the prettiest, not the most outspoken, but she is the more rational, responsible and mature of them all.

Which leads us to another reason I love Persuasion: the two characters are mature. They’re not young and in love for the first time, they’ve loved, they’ve lost, and they’ve come to know the value of finding someone who compliments you in all ways. Wentworth may put on more youthful airs and court women who are more lively, less serious than himself. But it’s skin deep, the same way Anne’s indifference is skin deep. They hurt (or have been hurt) too much to admit how ardently they still love.

They must learn to trust each other again, to open their hearts once more to the possibility of love.

It’s a great story.

Also there’s this gem:

He had, in fact, though his sisters were now doing all they could for him, by calling him “poor Richard,” been nothing better than a thick-headed, unfeeling, unprofitable Dick Musgrove, who had never done anything to entitle himself to more than the abbreviation of his name, living or dead.

Those who don’t love Jane Austen lead slightly less colorful lives.

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