review: Persuasion

I have a long-standing hatred of any and all romance novels — the odd time I try to read one, I usually just skip to the sex scenes and then toss the book aside — and I've never been that big on literary fiction either, with its overt navel-gazing and hand-wringing. But somehow, I've never read a Jane Austen novel I didn't like, and Persuasion is no exception.

What is it that makes Austen different? For one thing, despite all the pretty-mannered stereotypes about her novels, in a lot of ways they read more like thrillers than romances. The stakes are high: if her mostly-rural heroines don't secure a place in society, ie: get married, they risk ostracism or even homelessness. Austen wrote at a time when strict gender roles and classical liberalism were at their most unchecked, right before the abolitionists and other reformers had to go and "spoil it all", pointing out merit meant nothing in a world where not everyone had an equal chance to display it.

The heroine of  Persuasion is Anne Eliot, a younger daughter of the landed gentry. So little do her father and elder sisters think of her that she is only introduced a quarter of the way through her own story. Her family thinks her neither pretty nor intelligent, and Austen plots things to show the reader that they are wrong on both counts. In a more contemporary setting, Anne would have long ago left her vain, shallow relatives behind and by now made her own way to success. Instead, she has to apply her underrated cunning and good manners to keeping the peace as she is directed from one house to another. Her main role is to help her relatives whenever they feel a supportive presence would be useful;  her reward is to be included in their social circles, so long as she doesn't show up anyone.

Anne's dilemma is that in order to show her true character, she needs to get out from under her family, but maintain or enhance her position in society while she does so. That means marriage, but so long as she is constantly forced into a role supporting other women in her social circle, she's unlikely to be seen as a suitable bride. So it was with her first relationship with Captain Wentworth. She was forced to break off her engagement to him because her family deemed her unready and the match unsuitable, and Wentworth perceived it as a "weakness of character" on her part. She fails to explain the whole truth to him (though perhaps not for lack of trying); he fails to comprehend that her freedom is much more limited than his.  

The story isn't about Anne persuading Wentworth. In fact, at first she takes it for granted that he won't ever show an interest in her again. Really it's more about demonstrating. Anne demonstrates, in the parlance of the times, her character and her virtues. Wentworth slowly realises his condemnation of her character was inaccurate. He also seems to become more cognisant of her social situation than perhaps he was last time they interacted, and the change in his own fortunes in the intervening years (he's much wealthier than he was when they first met) perhaps lets him understand the familial objections to his first marriage proposal a little better.

Austen is more critical in Persuasion of coquettes and the fashionably hysteric than in her other novels. Anne winds up caring for an injured nephew because his parents get bored of caring for him and resent missing a major social function. Her biggest rival for Captain Wentworth' s affections gets dropped out of the competition in such a violently decisive way, it made me wonder what real-life person she was standing in for.

A note on the text: the version I read had nearly as many pages of introductions, criticism, and historical background as story, and each page was sprinkled with endnote references, just in case the reader didn't know black ribbons were worn to indicate one was in mourning or some such. I suppose these additions would be useful for undergraduates (although I remember being annoyed by them when I was an undergraduate too). I've been told by more than one English professor that they're included so a long out-of-copyright work may be copyrighted for its extraneous text.

It's silly. One of the reasons Austen's work has endured is because, among her writing's various amiable qualities, it is very readable.