Feeling in need of a mental palate cleanser after Sidney Sheldon, I decided to read the one Austen novel that was still new to me: Persuasion. I have to say that at first it didn’t start out too well and I wondered whether I had made a good choice. It felt the most…Georgette Heyer-ish of the Austen I’d read, a simple if charming romance. And then the second half began to mobilize all the elements that move Austen above the cut of sentimental writers and into the bracket of literature; something like a philosophy of living was being gently unfurled and shaken to reveal its subtle, tender colours, and when the book finally drew to a close I found myself quite profoundly moved. The title of Persuasion is apt in every way; it is a book that sneaks up on you and, with the softest of subterfuges, talks its way into your heart.
Persuasion tells the story of Anne Elliot, middle and overlooked daughter of the vain and status-hungry Sir Walter Elliot, whose sorry profligacy with cash has brought the family to reduced circumstances. Anne’s sensible mother has long since died, and her elder sister, Elizabeth, rules the roost. Sir Walter and Elizabeth are in sympathy in their snobbish, self-serving pursuit of social recognition, and Anne’s younger, married sister, Mary, a hypochondriac unless indulged and entertained, is not much better. Anne does have her champion in a friend of the family, the kind-hearted Lady Russell. But eight years ago, when Anne had her chance to marry, Lady Russell did her a disservice. The suitor in question was Captain Frederick Wentworth, a man with no title or wealth to recommend him, but who was handsome, intelligent and determined to do well in the Navy. This was a love match, not an alliance, and as such it was deemed insufficient for a young woman of Anne’s background. Lady Russell disapproved of the union and Anne obeyed, renouncing the only man she felt she could ever love. Now many years have passed, and, by a strange coincidence, Captain Wentworth reappears in her life, as Anne’s family has taken a tumble in the social rankings and he is a successful and independently wealthy man. Anne’s feelings have never changed, but Wentworth, resenting her former openness to persuasion, still bears a grudge. The novel charts the tricky and obstacle-strewn route to their reunion.
There is a distinct personality ideal that informs Austen’s writings and her heroines fall into two camps with regard to it. There are those who tend to be silly and foolish and must learn to emulate the ideal better – like Emma, in the novel of the same name, and Marianne Dashwood. And there are those who embody the ideal but who must wait in patience and forbearance for fate to bring their reward, like Elinor Dashwood, Fanny Price and Anne Elliot. The ideal Austen heroine has certain attributes:
She is generally underrated.
She has a natural inclination to listen and observe.
She values intelligence and virtue above money and rank.
She has no pretensions.
She prefers being outdoors to being indoors, but still likes reading.
She recognizes the necessity of duty.
She is passionate but she respects reason more.
She loves loyally and has great compassion.
But above all else she clings fiercely to her personal integrity.
This catalogue of virtues tends to make the heroine something of an eccentric in her society. Austen’s women are so often placed against a backdrop of shallow society types, or silly, superficial people, or even just salts of the earth who have much goodness about them but no learning or insight. Persuasion is no exception to the rule, with the extended family around Anne providing a catalogue of typically lovable grotesques. Family, in Austen’s novels, so often presents itself as a collection of people one has to love, despite everything they do, and whose actions could be thought funny, if one weren’t related to them. It’s one of Austen’s great strengths to create her unsympathetic characters with the most compassionate contempt and the most tender, mocking humour. But they provide a useful training ground for her female protagonists. How can Anne Elliot fight her own corner with people so self-centred as to be habitually blind to her desires? How can she persuade others of her point of view, when they are deaf to anything but their own selfish requirements? Circumventing silly, wrong-headed relatives is the Herculean task by means of which Austen’s girls grow to become women, and worthy of admiration.
But they also stand for two great virtues that Austen indicates time and again to be missing in her society. Her heroines practice discernment and they spurn the concept of entitlement. Anne Elliot’s family are drunk on the notion of entitlement; they want recognition from others for what they are, for the apparent gentility of their birth, for the accident of their ancestors. What they do and how they behave is irrelevant, when compared to the dues they believe are owed their innate sense of self-worth. Anne knows it is not about being entitled, or indeed about lack of entitlement or low self-esteem. It’s about judging on what is real and immediate, it’s about cherishing people on the strength of their character and evaluating that character carefully. Which brings us to discernment. In an era of highly coded manners, a proportion of Austen’s characters can be deceptively smooth, and only the attentive observer will note the cracks in the polite façade. Anne Elliot is not so busy putting herself forward that she fails to attend to the subtle inconsistencies of others. And this makes her judgement sound, her sense of self quietly centred, her belief in right and wrong steadfast and true.
So when her happy ending comes, it feels like more than a happy ending to the reader. It’s like the recovery of a long-lost order to the universe, in which wisdom, gentleness, restraint and intelligence are finally placed in the head of the queue, above flashy sensationalism, reckless risk-taking, or attention-seeking righteousness. This is what gives Austen’s work a particular crystalline purity, an internal structure of goodness and not just a superficial coating. If the meek really are going to inherit the earth, you’d have to hope it’s an Austen-type meekness, a gentleness of spirit that brushes up against the detachment and quietude of the Zen Buddhist. For me, Persuasion has been the book that best represents this philosophy, a slow burner of a read in which the reader’s own initial patience is rewarded with a triumphant final flowering of stately, beautiful virtue.