23: Persuasion

I have fallen massively behind. I have no idea if I can make it to a full month – that would be thirty books by the end of Monday. Let’s have a go.

If Northanger Abbey is a novel about novels, Persuasion is a novel about memory. It is mature, wry, clever and ultimately heartwarming. Anne Elliot is an older heroine, in her late twenties, unlucky in love some years before and cursed with a family decidedly inferior to her. Her father, Sir Walter, is defined by his vanity and snobbery (Admiral Croft, who rents Kellynch Hall from the Elliots, has to send away some of the larger mirrors in the dressing-room, exclaiming “Such a number of looking-glasses! oh, Lord! there was no getting away from one’s self”), and her elder sister Elizabeth is the heir of these faults as well. Her younger sister Mary, meanwhile, seems to be defined by contradicting herself – any time she speaks more than four or five sentences in an exchange, it is almost certain that she will say one thing and its opposite, apparently quite without realising.

Elizabeth is hopeless, Sir Walter is awful, Mary is ridiculous; none of them can appreciate Anne, whose mental and moral accomplishments their minds don’t seem to stretch to, and whose dignity stems from her character, not pomposity and position. Mary, at least, is not an unsympathetic character; she’s just a bit useless. Anne’s friend Lady Russell is perhaps the only one who truly values her, and is fiercely loyal.

Lady Russell had only to listen composedly, and wish them happy, but internally her heart revelled in angry pleasure, in pleased content, that the man who at twenty-three had seemed to understand somewhat of the value of an Anne Elliot should, eight years afterwards, be charmed by a Louisa Musgrove.

Anne is also, I think from her reaction to arriving in Bath, a bit of a country girl at heart – although she does have some special antipathy for that city in particular – and that definitely doesn’t hurt her in my estimation. (Having mentioned Louisa Musgrove, I should say that the Musgroves are the other key family of the piece, and also that it sometimes feels like everyone is called Charles.)

As ever, Austen is wry. “One likes to hear what is going on, to be au fait as to the newest modes of being trifling and silly.” “I did not promise. I only smirked and bowed and said the word ‘happy’. There was no promise.” “They were divided only by Mrs Musgrove. It was no insignificant barrier, indeed.” This is not a fresh romance romantic comedy, so there is little of the playful getting-to-know-you banter of Northanger Abbey. “Now they were as strangers; nay, worse than strangers, for they could never become acquainted.” It is slower, gentler, advancing by degrees and with a very influential backstory, rather than a wholly self-contained tale.

Anne Elliot gives the lie to the common notion that Austen prized rationality above all and regarded the heartfelt as foolish – a notion that leads to the conclusion that Sense and Sensibility is all about how sense is better. Anne is clever, insightful, sensible of proper decency; but she is also a haver of emotions, who values warmth and enthusiasm and being genuine. Persuasion is definitely a novel that will make you feel; if it doesn’t, your heart is made of stone.

As I said, Persuasion is about memory, not literature. Anne “will not allow books to prove anything” (mostly because they’re all written by men), and says, with a good deal of meaning, that “when pain is over, the remembrance of it often becomes a pleasure.” The entire passage, in fact, practically bursts at the seams with double meaning.

The last few hours were certainly very painful, but when pain is over, the remembrance of it often becomes a pleasure. One does not love a place the less for having suffered in it, unless it has all been suffering, nothing but suffering, and that was by no means the case at Lyme. We were only in anxiety and distress during the last two hours, and previously there had been a great deal of enjoyment. So much novelty and beauty! I have travelled so little, that every fresh place would be interesting to me; but there is real beauty at Lyme, and, in short, altogether my impressions of the place are very agreeable.

Even the denouement, the very moment of perfect happiness, talks about the enjoyment to be gained from future recollection of the event, rather than just the enjoyment of the moment itself.


Persuasion
Author Jane Austen
Published 1817
Pages 183
Best word Innoxious. Harmless.
Best character Captain Harville. If only (although I wanted to give it to him long before) for the wonderful discussion of constancy and inconstancy he carries out with Anne.

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