Saturday, July 14, 2012

Classic Review: "Persuasion," by Jane Austen

The Chick: Anne Elliot. A 27-year-old spinster, she lives quietly with her extravagant and selfish father and older sister.
The Rub: When the Elliots are forced to lease their estate to tenants, she is unexpectedly reunited with the love of her life, Captain Wentworth, eight years after she broke their engagement and his heart.
Dream Casting: Sally Hawkins.

The Dude: Captain Frederick Wentworth. Now an extremely wealthy and successful Navy officer, he is looking to settle down into a practical marriage - but only with a woman whose principles he can trust.
The Rub: He is still helplessly in love with Anne - but how can he trust her again?
Dream Casting: Rupert Penry-Jones. Yes, I love the 2008 adaptation. Haters gonna hate!

Secondary Cast:

Sir Walter Elliot: Anne's flamboyant, unbelievably superficial father. Not-so-silently judges everyone on their social rank and good looks. Distrustful of sailors because a) the navy's so democratic! and b) nobody moisturizes on a ship anymore! DOES NO ONE THINK OF THE SALT AIR?

Elizabeth Elliot: Anne's older, also superficial, and also unmarried sister.

Mrs. Clay: Elizabeth's widowed BFF, who's totally after Sir Walter Elliot's hand in marriage, a fact everyone knows except for Elizabeth. I'm not saying she's a gold-digger...

Lady Russell: Anne's mother's best friend, who's since taken over mothering duties on her dead friend's behalf. Good-hearted, well-intentioned, and loving - but even the best pseudo-moms have their prejudices and blind spots.

Mary Musgrove: Anne's younger, nicer sister, who's married to Charles Musgrove. Pleasant but also fickle and jealous, and a massive hypochondriac.

Charles Musgrove: Mary's awesome husband. He actually proposed to Anne first, and even though she refused him, they maintain a warm, platonic friendship.

Louisa Musgrove: Charles' younger sister. Lively, witty, and headstrong - to her detriment.

Captain Benwick: Frederick's friend who's become an emotional recluse after the love of his life died while at sea. Is a fan of romantic poetry.

Mr. William Elliot: The heir to Sir Walter Elliot's baronetcy and Anne's cousin. Became estranged from the family for years after dumping Elizabeth to marry a wealthy commoner. Newly widowed, he now seeks to reconnect with the relatives he unfairly abandoned - but for what purpose?

Romance Convention Checklist:
  • 1 Bittersweet Reunion
  • 1 Very Bad Dad
  • Several Lacklustre Romantic Rivals (Charles, Benwick, Louisa, Mr. Elliot)
  • 1 Plot-Propelling Coma
  • 2 Snakes in the Grass
  • 1 Hastily-Written Letter that Conveniently Explains The Entire Novel from the Hero's POV and Solves All Romantic Conflict (Jane Austen's trademark!)
The Word: Now, don't take this the wrong way, but I loved Persuasion long before I actually read the book. What I mean, is that I absolutely adored the 2008 PBS adaptation starring Rupert Penry-Jones as Captain Wentworth. I thought the film was beautifully shot, clever, charming, and wonderfully, irresistibly romantic.

Of course, a couple of my Twitter friends do not care for this version (it does change bits), and prefer the Ciaran Hinds version. But for me, I fell in love with that particular adaptation, and ultimately prefer it - yes, even over the Dominic Cooper-starring Sense and Sensibility and Colin Firth's Pride and Prejudice.

Anyway, it was with great anticipation that I picked up the book itself (in eBook format), and it did not disappoint. Anne Elliot, 27 and unmarried, lives with her insufferably vain father and older sister on their country estate. Due to her family members' thoughtless extravagance, they are forced to lease the property to tenants and pursue slightly more economical arrangements in the town of Bath.

By utter coincidence, the tenants turn out to be Admiral and Mrs Croft - the sister and brother-in-law of Captain Frederick Wentworth. Eight years ago, Anne and Wentworth were secretly engaged, until Anne's friend Lady Russell persuaded Anne to break it off due to her extreme youth, Wentworth's lower rank, and his uncertain prospects as a soldier. Brokenhearted, Wentworth departed to war and almost immediately rose through the ranks and achieved immense status and fortune - leaving Anne to wallow in misery and regret and what-might-have-been.

In fact, Wentworth is back from the war, and Anne encounters him again while staying with the Musgroves, her younger sister Mary's family. However, Wentworth has no desire to resume their attachment. Convinced that he requires a woman of constancy whose principles are as strong as his own, he pays court to Henrietta and Louisa, the young Musgrove sisters. However, as their shared social circle requires them to spend more and more time together, Anne finds the chance to demonstrate the true nature of her constancy and Wentworth comes to terms with his priorities.

What I adored about this book are the sheer number of subtleties and shades of grey in Anne's life and acquaintance. Anne is, by far, my favourite Jane Austen protagonist and this novel is very much about her life and how much of it she's spent in solitude, and how her loneliness shaped her perspective. She lost her beloved mother when she was only fourteen, and her frivolous father and older sister ignore and belittle her. While the Musgroves are warm, loving, and welcoming, they often turn to her to settle their disputes, appreciate their woes, and tend their hurts, all of which Anne does tirelessly. However, she cannot help but long for the exceedingly rare luxury of simply being listened to. Everyone relies on her and yet she has few people to rely on.

She manages to be a supportive person without being a passive character, she maintains her own thoughts and opinions without being rude or abrasive, and she has a forgiving, analytical eye that easily perceives the subtleties and different sides in any given situation. Despite still being in love with him, she even questions Wentworth's beliefs at times, coming to understand that strong principles work better when one is willing to be flexible with them.

Her one true ally in life is Lady Russell - who grew from being her late mother's dearest friend into a surrogate mother figure herself. Despite her part in influencing Anne's decision to break it off with Wentworth (and despite Jane Austen's tendency to villainize Interfering Older Dames a la Lady Catherine in Pride and Prejudice and Edward's mother in Sense and Sensibility), Lady Russell is depicted as a well-intentioned, positive force. Anne's emotional development comes not from demonizing or cutting down Lady Russell, but from realizing she can disagree with Lady Russell's admittedly lofty standards while still respecting and loving her.

Wentworth, himself, goes through a change - although it is far more subtle and much-debated over, since he's granted little to no POV in the novel. For my part, I see how Wentworth slowly comes to the realization that he's making the same mistakes now that Anne did in the past: choosing practicality over love. Wentworth believes he cannot marry Anne because he cannot trust the strength of her convictions - after all, she bailed when their budding relationship met with real opposition. Despite how clearly affected he still is by Anne's presence, he spends most of the novel courting the headstrong Louisa Musgrove, seeking a practical, stable marriage.

The tipping point comes when Wentworth, Anne and company visit the town of Lyme and Louisa jumps off a cliff like a ninny and hits her head. When Louisa recovers from her plot-propelling coma, she surprises everyone by becoming engaged to Captain Benwick, a friend of Wentworth's whose own fiancee passed away not seven months before.

Wentworth rants about this to Anne - not about Benwick stealing his girl, not about Louisa throwing him over, but about how impossible it seems that Benwick should recover from the death of his true love and marry another in only seven months' time. Without thinking, Wentworth declares that a true love match cannot, and should not, be recovered from. It is there, I think, that Wentworth realizes that he was attempting to do exactly that: choosing a relationship with an inferior woman out of practicality, over a riskier relationship with the woman he truly loves.

However, perhaps one of the things I loved most about this novel is how well it "shows over tells." The writing style of Jane Austen's time period permits quite a bit of telling and exposition, which is fine and entertaining to read - but I love how so much of the story in Persuasion is left unsaid. Particularly, I love the quiet ways in which Frederick learns the true depth of Anne's fidelity to their love - such as when he learns from Louisa that Charles Musgrove (Mary's husband, and a man of wealth and social standing) proposed to Anne first, only to be refused. The novel never goes into much detail about this exchange of dialogue, but the intention is clear - if Anne remained so concerned with practicality and stability, why did she choose to remain a spinster instead of marrying her wealthy friend?

Anne's single status also invites an interesting comparison to her sister Elizabeth, who has also remained unwed after being dumped by William Elliot. It's implied that Anne remained single because of her devotion to Wentworth, whereas Elizabeth remained single thanks to her overweening pride and snobbery. Guess who's still unfortunately man-less by the end of the novel?

In one of the most clever and romantic scenes in the novel, Wentworth asks Anne how she could possibly continue to regard the town of Lyme with fondness after the tragedy that occurred there. Anne knowingly replies that before Louisa's accident, she had a wonderful time in that town and those happy memories aren't diminished by how painfully she departed from Lyme. Spoiler alert: neither of them are actually talking about Lyme.

Persuasion is such a rich, layered novel full of characters of surprising moral ambiguity. It allows villains to be kind, heroines to make mistakes, friendships to be dear but imperfect, while love still reigns supreme. Persuasion was one of Jane Austen's later novels (released posthumously with Northanger Abbey), and it shows the growth and development of her prodigious writing talent. It is definitely my favourite of all her novels.


  1. Anonymous4:26 PM

    So glad to see another reader showing some love to the best of the Austin books. Great analysis.

  2. I liked the 2008 adaptation too! You are not alone!

    Love this review. Austen is definitely my favorite (with the exception of Mansfield Park...that one's unfortunate). Northanger Abbey is my extra special favorite. I want a Mr. Tilney of my own. *sighs dreamily*

    1. I'm SO glad I'm not the only person who disliked Mansfield Park - I also reviewed it on this blog. I HATED that Fanny and Edmund ended up together - I was rooting for Henry Crawford to come around!

      Also Mr. Tilney is adorbs - especially in the latest PBS adaptation.

  3. Anonymous6:05 PM

    I got this book from my friends on my birthday and am I glad they chose this book (I asked for any book by Jane Austen). Since then I've read almost all of her book and this remains my favorite, particularly because I liked Anne very much. Great review