Classics Club Challenge #6: Persuasion

Persuasion (Wordsworth black2)Persuasion
by Jane Austen

published posthumously in 1818
First read February 5th – 8th 2015

Since there are quite a number of families involved, kindly allow me to sort them out at first:
Elliots of Kellynch Hall: Sir Walter Elliot, his deceased wife Lady Elliot, Miss Elizabeth, Miss Anne (protagonist) and Miss Mary, later Mrs Musgrove; cousin William Elliot, heir-apparent; Sir Walter, Elizabeth and Anne move to Bath
Musgroves of Uppercross, a neighboring estate: Mr and Mrs Musgroves as family patriarch/matriarch; their children, Charles (who married Mary), Henrietta, Louisa
Hayters: Mrs Musgrove’s family by birth; Charles Hayter is a cousin of Charles, Henrietta and Louisa’s
Crofts: Admiral Croft and his wife; tenants of Kellynch Hall; Mrs Croft is a sister of Captain Wentworth’s
Harvilles from Lyme: Captain Harville and his wife are friends of Captain Wentworth’s
and many more characters who are connected in an intricate way.

My last full-length Jane Austen novel. It is a bittersweet sentiment indeed. Reading Persuasion was a most enjoyable reading experience when it comes to reading classics – excluding children’s classics, I can’t remember ever reading a classic so quickly – devouring, really – and without being bored at all. I think reading Margaret C. Sullivan’s The Jane Austen Handbook: Proper Life Skills from Regency England contributed to that enjoyment a lot. It’s the little details that flesh out the overall story. Thanks to this handy guide I could understand why Mary Musgrove was miffed when the Crofts hadn’t offered to take any letters with them to Bath, or why she relished in it when they did offer and said that now she could write as much as she wanted to. The casual mentions of bathing and Pump Rooms were no longer foreign to me, nor the daily routines of Regency ladies.

Alas, I am getting ahead of myself.
After having read all six of Jane Austen’s “mature” full-length novels with varying degrees of understanding, it is my opinion that Persuasion is quite different from the others. The sometimes comical, often amused observations of the society and its inhabitants were rather pushed into the background. It’s emotionally charged, quite direct in its narration and story development, and more forthright and honest. It was – very raw.
The narration observes and remarks at Anne Elliot’s vain and selfish family members – Sir Walter, Miss Elizabeth, Mrs Mary – who are concerned with ranks and superficial etiquettes, etc. Even Lady Russell, who is a dear friend of Anne’s and has her best interests at heart, tends to judge people from their surface – their initial mannerism, their looks, their sense of propriety, etc. In contrast we have the Musgroves at Uppercross, a family by marriage (Anne’s younger sister Mary married Charles Musgrove) that is a bit chaotic and less – refined? – but warm and affectionate. But all of this is cloaked in Anne’s internal agitation of having to face her ex-fiancĂ© eight years after she had broken off their engagement, and the tension between them when they do come face-to-face.
Unraveling that tension is really exquisitely done. Like a frustrating knot in a thread coming slowly and patiently undone, buried resentments and feelings, along with rational and reasonable approach disengage and entwine them, and it all ends in – what else? – a passionate reunion.

Around the stories of two people and their shared past, present and future are other interesting threads adding to the story. Or rather, Anne and Frederick’s story often doesn’t feel like it’s the main plot. Maybe it isn’t, and it wasn’t meant to be. Because around and underneath and over it are all the other things Persuasion has to teach us: deception in characters, being blinded by familiarity and superficial impressions, vanity, money-managing problems, hopes and pitfalls of love, snobbery (and lots of it!), walking the line between much-craved solitude and being rude to company, and this one interesting dialogue between Anne and Captain Harville:

Anne: “We [the women] certainly do not forget you [the men] so soon as you forget us. It is, perhaps, our fate rather than our merit. We cannot help ourselves. We live at home, quiet, confined, and our feelings prey upon us. You are forced on exertion. You have always professions, pursuits, business of some sort or other, to take you back into the world immediately, and continual occupation and change soon weaken impressions.”
Captain Harville: “Granting your assertion that the world does all this so soon for men […], it does not apply to [NAME REDACTED]. He has not been forced upon any exertion. […]”
A: “True, very true; I did not recollect; but what shall we say now, Captain Harville? If the change be not from outward circumstances, it must be from within; it must be nature, man’s nature, which has done the business for [NAME REDACTED].”
Cpt H: “No, no, it is not man’s nature. I will not allow it to be more man’s nature than woman’s to be inconstant and forget those they do love, or have loved. I believe the reverse. I believe in a true analogy between our bodily frames and our mental; and that as our bodies are the strongest, so are our feelings; capable of bearing most rough usage, and riding out the heaviest weather.”
A: “Your feelings may be the strongest, but the same spirit of analogy will authorise me to assert that ours are the most tender. Man is more robust than woman, but he is not longer-lived; which exactly explains my view of the nature of their attachments. […]”
Cpt H: “We shall never agree I suppose at this point. No man and woman would, probably. But let me observe that all histories are against you, all stories, prose and verse. […] 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.”
A: “Perhaps I shall. […] It is a difference of opinion which does not admit of proof. We each begin probably with a little bias towards our own sex, and upon that bias build every circumstance in favour of it which has occurred within our own circle […]. I believe you capable of everything great and good in your married lives […] so long as – if I may be allowed the expression, so long as you have an object. I mean, while the woman you love lives, and lives for you. All the privilege I claim for my own sex (it is not a very enviable one, you need not covet it), is that of loving longest, when existence or when hope is gone.”
Persuasion, Volume II, Chapter Eleven

Interesting theories (a letter disproves Anne’s latest theory immediately afterwards, by the way) but I dare say I am not the only one who reads other allusions between the lines! Gender inequality! Gender roles! Gender privileges!
The situation has changed so much since 19th century – women can and do work alongside men, even though we still suffer from hidden inequality and prejudices. I wonder whether Anne’s theories would still be applicable.

All in all, I can only recommend you to read, feel and think about Persuasion and what it offers.

P.S.: Here is a video review of Persuasion by Claire (readingbukowski) that made me curious about the book in the first place – a year and a half ago. It’s funny how we use the same words to describe the feelings inspired by the book (she talks about the letter specifically) – “passionate, forward, raw, truthful”. She gives a more extensive overview of important themes portrayed in the book.


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