On Jane Austen

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.

26 thoughts on “On Jane Austen

  1. I can’t think of a better palate cleanser. It’s been years since I read Persuasion, but you’ve convinced me I ought to revisit it. And thank you for pointing out exactly why Austen has remained so timeless, as well as why so many get it so wrong when they write book blurbs for 21st-century fiction proclaiming them to be the new Jane Austen, when they, really, are nothing more than sentimental writers.

  2. What a wonderful exegesis on Austen’s world view. “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”–which is just as relevant now. I haven’t read Persuasion. I think I will.

  3. This takes me way back as I studied it for A level. It’s interesting what you say about Anne and how she like Austen heroines in general struggle against the stupidities of their societies. I think you can see her less heroic figures, like Emma, as having soaked up the stupidities rather than seeing through them, but all to some extent having to suffer for them. I wonder what you thought of Wentworth. I found him frustrating, as he so often sees the wonderful qualities in Anne, but can’t get past that sense of rejection. Could it be he has learned overcaution or just resentment?

  4. This is quite possibly one of the most glowing review of Persuasion that I’ve ever read, and I have to say that I’m so incredibly glad to see it! Persuasion has long been one of my favorite Austen books, and one of the ones I feel gets so undervalued, perhaps because it’s happy ending really does just feel happier! Wentworth has long been my second favorite romantic lead behind Mr. Darcy! Thanks for the great review!

  5. My favourite too! Such a tender, clear-eyed book; my first choice of comfort reading when I feel that I’ll never unravel my mistakes. You’re absolutely right – it restores order, and hope.

  6. Reading Jane Austen has always felt like a way to put the world right, to make things clean and shiny and bright. How perfect to consider it a “palate cleanser”!

  7. I haven’t read Persuasion in years. It’s the Jane Austen book I’m sort of saving as a treat for myself sometime, because I can hardly remember anything about it. Someone falls off a gate. Or something. That’s all I remember. I’m glad to hear it won’t disappoint when I get round to it! 🙂

  8. I love Persuasion, it’s my favorite Austen novel. Anne Elliot is such a likable character in her own quiet, intelligent way. It’s hard not to be happy that in the end she and Captain Wentworth finally get together. I think you’re right that in the end you’re even more happy when things end well. You write about it so beautifully, now I want to pull it off my shelf and read it again. (I often have this problem when I read your posts, though).

  9. Wonderful review, Litlove. I read Persuasion for the first time a couple of years ago…awaiting the birth of my first grandchild. Perhaps for that reason, it has a special place in my esteem…aside from being pure pleasure in it’s own right.

  10. It’s great to read a review of this wonderful novel by an intelligent reader who has just read it for the first time! I have taught Austen endlessly for about 25 years and still find new things in her novels every time I re-read them. I can never say which is my favorite as it tends to be the one I read most recently, but Persuasion certainly comes high on the list. Re. Bookboxed’s comment on Wentworth — it’s the damage to his male pride that stops him from getting over his rejection, isn’t it? Rather true to life, if not admirable, I’d say.

  11. Does a little happy dance. I think ‘Persuasion’ is massively underrated so I’m always glad to find new people understanding how much it has to offer. I really like your idea that for Austen family is a collection of people you have to love, that seems to fit especially well with this novel and when Elizabeth’s fully realises about how her family, even her loveable father, appears to outsiders in ‘Pride and Prejudice’. Do you prefer her heroines trying to reach the ideal, or the ones who alreday embody the ideal? I’m on the fence until I read ‘Emma’.

  12. So glad you ended up liking Persuasion. You had me a little worried there at the beginning. It’s a very close second (after P&P) in my Austen favorites ranking. It is a book that grows on you and so much more subtle than her others. Whenever I read it, and it’s been awhile, I always feel a bit sad afterwards because there are no more Austen novels and I would love to see where she would have gone after this one.

  13. Persuasion is my favorite of all Austen’s novels. I’ve reread it more times than I can count, and each time I catch another nuance-for example, last time, Anne is reflecting on a particular sonnet that describes her feelings about autumn, while Wentworth and Louisa are talking to each other, and it occurred to me that she might be thinking of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 28. I could be wrong, but I think it would beautifully fit the theme of loving the longest, since she believes Wentworth will leave her as the lover in the sonnet will leave, and I think she also believes herself to be on the verge of death, spiritual if not actual.

    I wrote about it here: http://mirisaspacestation.blogspot.com/search/label/Persuasion

  14. How wonderful, first of all, to have an unread Austen novel. Except now, of course, you don’t — but that’s the dilemma, right? It’s great to have an unread book of someone you admire, but that means you can’t read it … I was almost sorry to finally get to Northanger Abbey a while back, because it meant I had no new major novel of hers to discover. This is a beautiful post, and it sums up very well why I love Austen — there’s something so wonderfully reassuring about her, and she’s reassuring in a complex enough way to trust.

  15. Mmmm, lovely review, LL. I so enjoyed it, overtired and underfed as I feel right this second, which really says something of the quality of your writing as much as about my interest in Austen’s. I am thoroughly ‘persuaded’!

  16. I’ve enjoyed reading your thorough and insightful write-up on JA. What you’ve listed just about sum up why I like her… the virtuous heroine, the ideal type, albeit not every one of them is like that to start with, but they would be so ready to acknowledge their faults and strive for improvement (like Emma and Catherine Morland). I’ve admired JA for her intelligence and quest for mature love over ephemeral romance. Persuasion is an apt example. Of course, I love JA for her spritely humour too… that’s why P & P remains my favourite. Thanks again for a wonderful post!

  17. It’s raining here today and if I had more time I would pick up Persuasion and settle in for a satisfying reread. I love this novel, it ranks just below Northanger Abbey for me. And I certainly enjoyed your listing of Austen-heroine traits. My favorite: prefers the outdoors but still likes to read.

  18. I’m so happy that you enjoyed Persuasion–it’s my favorite Austen. I fell in love with Anne Elliot because, as you say, her judgement is sound, “her sense of self quietly centred, her belief in right and wrong steadfast and true.” And I love her sense of humor in the face of being underestimated and misunderstood by her obnoxious family! One of the books I return to over and over!

  19. Emily – So glad you loved it, too. And yes, Austen is not just about the romance – or at least the romance becomes a vehicle by means of which she tests her heroine’s character and reveals the social ideology of the day. And that’s smart work.🙂

    Jacob – thank you – I appreciate that so much.

    Lilian – thank you, too! I would love to know what you think of the book if you get hold of it.

    Bookboxed – interesting question about Wentworth. I felt that he was in the place of the almost-there Austen heroine, like Emma, for instance. He so nearly embodies all Austen’s essential virtues, but he has a flaw, a silliness that he hasn’t overcome, and which he will only correct by observing Anne and learning from her example. And for us girls, to change a man’s persuasion is a powerful evidence of real self-worth. Anne need never fear that he has returned to her out of apathy or nostalgia. I wish I had studied this book at O level – I would have loved it, I think!

    Bluestocking – isn’t it odd that it gets overlooked? But then I suppose the start is slow. Now I think that’s really clever, as it mirrors the stasis and torpor of its heroine, but I guess it could put some readers off.

    Chelsea – thank you! It has certainly shot up my list now that I’ve read it.

    Fugitive – yes, I can definitely see why this one would be a rereader. I don’t often read books more than once, but I’d like to read the start of this one again, knowing how it ends. I like your description of it – spot on!

    Becca – she does make it seem a better, more benign place, I couldn’t agree more!

    Jenny – do save it up (I won’t tell you a thing about the ‘gate’ incident). I was glad to have one to read, and wish I still had it on the back burner. Except of course, I needed it at the time and was glad of it!🙂

    Danielle – aww that is so nice, thank you! I can quite see why it is your favourite. I am very tempted to put it at the top of my list now. The ending is such a delight.

  20. Grad – what a lovely memory to be able to associate with the book! No wonder it has a special place for you. And happily, it’s a book that merits it!

    Harriet – I’m rather relieved if you thought the review was okay. I’ve never studied Austen, and hoped I wasn’t reading against the grain. How wonderful she must be to teach! She is certainly an author I have found more in as I’ve got older.

    Jodie – I feel exactly the same as you – Emma is the only one who annoys me a bit. The others are rightfully flawed, if you see what I mean. Their flaws bring something useful and entertaining, often, in their own right. And yay, I’m delighted to find so many people who love Persuasion. I had no idea.

    Stefanie – isn’t that a sad thought? She would have so kicked ass with whatever she wrote next. Persuasion is definitely a grower, and falls into a tiny category (for me) of books I’d read again.

    Miriam – thank you for that link, and for your lovely insight! I certainly hadn’t thought of that while reading through, and was very tempted to get the book out again to reread that passage.

    Dorothy – I love what you say about the reassurance being complex enough to trust. There’s something very insightful in that. I know, isn’t it a shame not to have any left? But I only read three-quarters of Mansfield Park, years ago, because I didn’t get on with it at the time. So I suppose I can count that as unread and pick it up again in my next Austen-crisis!

    Doctordi – I do hope you are no longer overtired and underfed – that sounds like an awful combination! Glad the magnificent Jane could make it a bit better temporarily.

    Arti – you are very welcome! I love what you say about Austen – she is such a subtly powerful author. I really don’t know which of her books is my favourite now, but Persuasion is certainly near the top of the list!

    Verbivore – lol! My favourite is the one about being passionate but preferring reason.😉 I had no idea Persuasion would be such an interesting and well-loved novel, but it has certainly shot to near the top of my own list for Austen.

    Gentle Reader – how lovely that you love this book, too. I hardly ever reread books, but I can see that I’d be tempted to do so with this one. I don’t feel I appreciated the beginning and would like to read it again, knowing the end.🙂

    Kate – what a lovely comment – thank you! And yes, it is entertaining that virtue is so often unusual in Austen’s world. But she does manage to make her silly characters oddly appealing too!🙂

  21. Wonderful review — and my favorite Austen book. There is a beautiful film made sometime in the early 90s, with Ciaran Hinds as Wentworth — highly recommended; it really captured the incredible combination of tenderness and unflinching observation pervading the book.

    • My favourite Austen novel, and my favourite Austen film as well. Better than the later version, that had gentle Anne gathering up her skirts and racing through Bath after Captain Wentworth like a hoyden! Perhaps films reflect [too much of] the mores of their own age, rather than the age of the novel. The 90s version was criticised for the kiss (in a public place) at the end.

  22. Persuasion is my favorite Austen; so glad it won you over in the end. What I appreciated most about it was the way Austen worked the idea of “persuasion” into nearly every scene–brilliant! Love your criteria for the perfect Austen heroine. So true! Glad you were able to cleanse your literary palate in such an enjoyable fashion.

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