Home The Author The Book Reviews FAQs More Stuff The Other Side


BLOG

RSS Feed 

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

 

Opening Line: Persuasion by Jane Austen

This blog is undergoing revision; a temporary archive of Opening Line posts can be found here
Sir Walter Elliot, of Kellynch Hall, in Somerset, was a man who, for his own amusement, never took up any book but the Baronetage; there he found occupation for an idle hour, and consolation in a distressed one; there his faculties were roused into admiration and respect, by contemplating the limited remnant of the earliest patents; there any unwelcome sensations, arising from domestic affairs, changed naturally into pity and contempt as he turned over the almost endless creations of the last century; and there, if every other leaf were powerless, he could read his own history with an interest which never failed.

What's your favourite Austen book? Do you prefer the breathless romance of Pride and Prejudice? The poised sparkle of Emma? The involved drama of Mansfield Park? The warm, imperfect charm of Northanger Abbey? The witty, partisan suspense of Sense and Sensibility?

Or do you prefer Persuasion, that most-favourite, least-favourite, best or worst of Austen's oeuvre, depending on who you ask?

Jane Austen was a genius. In the days when the novel was but nascent, having no correspondence with any other writers, educated only at home, and beginning in her teens, she somehow managed to create a form of perfection, a brilliant, gripping, hilarious and polished set of creations that still enthrall centuries after the manners she parodied have passed. Few novel-lovers can think without regret of her early death, leaving us with only those half-dozen books to enjoy ... but among that half-dozen, loved as they are by both scholars and the popular market, which is the most loveable remains a question we can debate with some animation. Emma tends to sit securely high on most people's lists, as does Pride and Prejudice; Northanger Abbey has faults which most readers gladly forgive but openly acknowledge; Sense and Sensibility may suffer a little in comparison with Pride and Prejudice, but only a little, and we fall into it grateful for its existence.

Mansfield Park is a thornier question; Fanny Price is perhaps the least popular of Austen's heroines, and the serious manner and pious attitudes of its hero lack the charm and virility of most of her other men. For all that, it's a beautifully written book with a truly marvellous structure, slow-paced on the surface but with an undertow as fast and forceful as any thriller: tiny incident adds to tiny incident and builds to some of her most extreme disasters, and the steady increase of tension is played with mastery. Likewise Fanny, if lacking in sass and sizzle, is a delicately-observed portrait placed in plausible circumstances, her timidity and caution understandable given her broken childhood and constantly-disregarded feelings, a heroine that Austen, finally calling her 'my Fanny', evidently loves. Personal preference being so much a part of reading Austen - another measure of her brilliance, for how many other great authors attract such intimate attachment? - I'll lay down my cards: Mansfield Park is one of my favourites, probably equalled only by Emma: for me, what it lacks in wit it makes up in psychological complexity, what it lacks in sex appeal it makes up in sensitivity, and its story draws me in every time.

Yet if we're talking about an engaging story, why do I not love Persuasion?

I have an exercise in mind with this Opening Line post. A first sentence can cast light on the rest of the novel, and it's the rest of the novel as much as the first sentence that interests me. Sometimes, it's good to re-examine the books that don't engage us.

Earlier this year, the Slate journalist Adelle Waldman ranked Austen's novels 'from best to worst' (in an order that I find hard to quarrel with, particularly if we're talking about technical perfection rather than personal preference), and rated Persuasion lowest. Accompanying this list, she posed the following question:

Why do so many of Jane Austen’s smartest readers consider her weakest novel to be her best? Persuasion, the story of kind, helpful Anne Elliot—who made a mistake years ago and is still suffering for it when the book opens—is didactic and full of crude, overdrawn characterizations. It is also the least funny of Austen’s books. The bad characters, whether snobbish, scheming, or hypochondriacal, are unwaveringly bad. (Directed at such easy targets, satire ceases to be satire. It’s more like gawking at roadkill.) The book’s good characters are even worse: boring, smug and, after a while, downright insufferable. Writing about a rough draft of The Watsons, one of Austen’s unfinished books, Virginia Woolf said that “the stiffness and bareness of the first chapters” suggest that “she was one of those writers who lay their facts out rather baldly in the first version and then go back and back and back and cover them with flesh and atmosphere.” Woolf might have been speaking of Persuasion. Published posthumously, it has an almost skeletal feel, like an outline in which only the most salient points about each character are noted, as if Austen didn’t have time to “cover them with flesh.”

The essay of Woolf's she quotes does actually touch on Persuasion, in a slightly more sympathetic style:

There is a peculiar beauty and a peculiar dullness in Persuasion. The dullness is that which so often marks the transition stage between two different periods. The writer is a little bored. She has grown too familiar with the ways of her world; she no longer notes them freshly. There is an asperity in her comedy which suggests that she has almost ceased to be amused by the vanities of a Sir Walter or the snobberies of a Miss Elliott. The satire is harsh, and the comedy crude. She is no longer so freshly aware of the amusements of daily life. Her mind is not altogether on her object. But, while we feel that Jane Austen has done this before, and done it better, we also feel that she is trying to do something which she has never yet attempted. There is a new element in Persuasion, the quality, perhaps, that made Dr Whewell fire up and insist that it was 'the most beautiful of her works'. She is beginning to discover that the world is larger, more mysterious, and more romantic than she had supposed. We feel it to be true of herself when she says of Anne: 'She had been forced into prudence in her youth, she learned romance as she grew older - the natural sequence of an unnatural beginning. She dwells frequently upon the beauty and the melancholy of nature, upon the autumn where she had been wont to dwell upon the spring ... The observation is less of facts and more of feelings than is usual.

Waldman theorises that Persuasion is rated by some notable critics as Austen's best work because of a general preference for the 'serious' over the comic. Woolf's analysis notes a melancholy and emotion in Persuasion which may have a stronger effect than mere prejudice against the humorous. Both may have a point, but I'm not sure it's the whole picture.

To me, Persuasion was hard to learn how to like - to the point where it didn't feel quite like an Austen book but like the work of a skilled ghostwriter. It's probably the least funny of her books, but that isn't wrong in itself; Mansfield Park is sober in its mien too and I've loved it since I first read it aged twenty. It's bitterly judgemental towards the 'conceited, silly' characters, but then Pride and Prejudice is thoroughly rude about the 'mean understanding, little information and uncertain temper' of Mrs Bennet right in the first chapter, and everybody loves Pride and Prejudice. What's the difference? Partly, I think, is that Persuasion is the angriest of Austen's books: as Woolf observes, Austen doesn't seem to be entertained by her characters. What laughter there is is scornful rather than amused. To draw out a single illustration: while Sir Walter's 'contempt and pity' are presented for us to judge harshly in the first sentence, it's also presented as a mark of worth that Frederick Wentworth, our charming hero, can be spotted turning aside from Anne's sister Mary with a look of 'contempt' not once, but twice - the 'contemptuous glance' he hides on the hill above Winthrop, and the 'momentary expression of contempt' when Mary presumes to whisper audibly that he must be 'delighted' to get an invitation from her father. 'Contempt' is the same emotion we deprecate in the ghastly Sir Walter - yet in Captain Wentworth, we are meant to approve it.

I'll focus on this word for a while, because it's a good demonstration of Persuasion's atypical tone. Using a Kindle search I find forty-four instances of the word in Austen (including variations such as 'contemptible', and including juvenilia such as Lady Susan), and in most of her other books, it's not a virtuous emotion. Emma denies to Mr Knightley that Harriet Smith's connections are 'so contemptible as you represent them', for instance, and the fact that she's attributing the word to him when he hasn't spoken it himself is a none-too-subtle accusation. Maria Bertram feels 'contempt of the man she was going to marry' - not entirely unfounded, for Mr Rushworth is a fool, but in that context the word is also a judgement on Maria: to feel contempt for a man whose fortune she plans to live upon is a sign of her own spoiled and selfish attitudes. Isabella Thorpe exclaims 'How contemptible!' in conversation: she is self-dramatising and affected, and almost nothing she says is sincere. General Tilney feels 'happy contempt' towards a man with an inferior greenhouse to himself, and 'contempt of [Catherine Morland's] family': he is a materialistic old snob. The word recurs a fair amount in Pride and Prejudice: Elizabeth Bennet discerns the 'contempt' of the Bingley sisters and accuses Mr Darcy of 'contempt' more than once; contempt is precisely the value Darcy must disown to win her. Elizabeth, too, fears the 'contempt' of society towards her family, and comes to regret her father's tacit encouragement of 'contempt' towards her mother.

Most of the time, in other words, contempt is a vice or a problem in Austen. Seldom is it attributed to sympathetic characters, and on those occasions, it's usually very carefully handled. Marianne Dashwood is prone to feel 'contempt' for people, but while we love her, she's impulsive and prone to over-reaction. In that context, it's not so much a sneer as a tossed head and a lifted chin, the sudden reaction of a high-minded but immature girl. There are only two instances of sound-judging heroines feeling contempt, and in both cases, it's felt in heat, not coldness: Elinor Dashwood feels 'angry contempt' for Willoughby, but only after he's cruelly abandoned her sister and is attempting to justify himself, and Elizabeth Bennet can't think 'without anger, hardly without contempt' of Mr Bingley's willingness to be persuaded to give up his love for her sister Jane. Anger and contempt mix together in warm-hearted characters - even in Persuasion, the loving but misjudging Lady Russell's 'heart revelled in angry pleasure, in pleased contempt' at the thought that Captain Wentworth is proving himself unworthy of Anne Elliot, thus confirming that she was right to talk Anne out of marrying him. Anger is always added in, a touch on the reader's shoulder to remind us that this is the 'contempt' of indignation, of outraged love for a third party, not of superiority. Yet when we come to Persuasion, we see it in the hero, twice, with no such qualification. True, he has reason to dislike Mary, but she has not been the main agent of dissuading Anne from marrying him, nor is she the primary source of Anne's low status in her family: the former sin rests with Lady Russell, the latter with Sir Walter. Mary is demanding, self-flattering and unreasonable, but she is not cruel, and of the Elliot relations that encumber Anne, she is probably the least bad. On the hill he might be excused for still feeling bitter towards the whole Elliot clan, but by the time of the invitation, his love for Anne has returned, and he's still contemptuous towards her sister. We may feel a certain contempt towards Mary ourselves, but then we are outside her world, aware that she is a fictional character, not required to treat her with humanity. Wentworth does not have that position. He is a character, and subject to our judgement to - yet because Mary is not admirable, we are not to question how well a ready contempt sits alongside a declaredly loving disposition.

The unmoderated language is far heavier, far cruder than we can usually expect from Austen. Compare it, for instance, to the beautiful turn that sums up a hero's dislike for a tiresome woman in Emma: 'Mr Knightley seemed to be trying not to smile, and succeeded without difficulty, upon Mrs Elton's beginning to talk to him.' There, we see a hero not just as a judge of character, not just desirable because his view of human nature is correct, but as a human being himself, interacting with others, trapped by good manners into a conversation that allows us to laugh in sympathy with his plight as well as with his opinion. Persuasion lacks this complexity; we are to accept judgements without being laughed into them. We do not get to laugh both at and with the heroes simultaneously.

I may seem to be making heavy play out of a single word, but in fact, Persuasion is full of such issues. Part of the problem is that, as Woolf points out, the book is light on dialogue. In every other novel, Austen can boast at least one or two great comic voices: Northanger Abbey has the playful teasing of Henry Tilney and the pretentious flutterings of Isabella Thorpe; Sense and Sensibility has the 'beau'-obsessed elder Miss Steele; Pride and Prejudice has the raucous Mrs Bennet and the weightily obsequious Mr Collins; Emma has the incomparable Mrs Elton. Even Mansfield Park, serious though it is, has the endlessly mean Mrs Norris exposing her dreadfulness every time she opens her mouth: we may not quite laugh at her, but we certainly see her hypocrisies revealed, and hypocrisy is one of the prime ingredients of comedy. But while there are distinctive voices in Persuasion - Anne's egregious relations, the hearty Admiral Croft - there is less irony in their delineation: even the nasty people are not so much hypocrites as they are just plain selfish, conceited and dislikeable. There is no Mrs Elton, no Mr Collins, no Miss Steele: Persuasion contains none of Austen's comedic greats. Added to that, Austen tells us a great deal more in her narrative voice than she does with conversations. The first chapter of Pride and Prejudice reads almost like a play script; the first chapter of Persuasion contains only a single, incomplete line of quoted speech: 'For they must have been seen together,' he observed, 'once at Tattersal's, and twice in the lobby of the House of Commons.' Austen, that pitch-perfect writer of voices, sings rather low in Persuasion. The narrative voice intrudes; the character voices suffer.

So, too, does the characterisation of her heroine. There is a simple problem: Anne, unlike the interfering Emma, the misjudging Elizabeth, the inhibited Fanny, the naive Catherine, the heedless Marianne and the misled Elinor, is never seriously wrong. Mr Elliott's courtship does not tempt her as strongly Wickham's tempts Elizabeth; her well-meant reticence is never truly unfortunate, as Fanny's is when she lacks the courage to warn her uncle why Henry Crawford is not a man to marry; unlike Emma or Catherine or Marianne, she has no moments of silliness; she does not even struggle, as Elinor does, with the keeping of a secret that leads her into unwanted deceits, or with the conflict between love for her family and fear of their folly - with moments when it's all but impossible to know what the right course of action should be. Anne's behaviour is consistently virtuous and her opinions consistently reliable. Yes, the novel's plot is based on a terrible mistake, in that she refused the man she loved, but that mistake is blamed on the 'persuasion' of other characters which 'was more than Anne could combat' - and even then, we are firmly told to believe her motives 'not a merely selfish caution', but 'the belief of being prudent, and self-denying principally for his advantage.' Anne is just a little too spotless. Austen herself acknowledged it in a letter to her niece Fanny Knight (LXXXIV):

Do not be surprised at finding Uncle Henry acquainted with my having another ready for publication. I could not say No when he asked me, but he knows nothing more of it. You will not like it, so you need not be impatient. You may perhaps like the heroine, as she is almost too good for me.

In this same letter Austen acknowledged that 'pictures of perfection, as you know, make me sick and wicked', and while she does not quite attribute this nauseating quality to Anne, we are not seeing the tenderness of 'my Fanny' here. Anne is almost too good - which isn't just a flaw in a character, but in the narrative: events happen around Anne, but characters' stories have a tendency come to rest on the issue of whether they value Anne enough in the end. Anne struggles with her own feelings, and she struggles to be useful, but she is a rather static point in the narrative, and as such, rather a drag on the individuality of everyone else.

Or at least, so she seems. There are reasons why the novel isn't universally popular: the dearth of dialogue, the 'almost too good' heroine, and the increasingly acidulated tone. It's a deft stroke, for instance, in Zoe Heller's Notes On A Scandal that Barbara, the lonely misanthrope, tells us, 'I have created my own traditions for the high days and holy days. This New Year's, as on every New Year's for the last decade, I bought in a bottle of sherry and spent the evening getting slightly sozzled while re-reading Jane Austen's Persuasion'; we can just picture her sighing along to the hopes of second chances and nodding in satisfaction as one character after another is condemned for failing to recognise the heroine's essential rightness. Yet somehow, despite all this, Persuasion is a novel people fall in love with.

Why?

Waldman's suggestion of humourlessness doesn't seem to cover it. Nor, peace to her ashes, does Woolf's reflections on the melancholy and the love of nature: they're part of it, but not, I think, the whole. The complex interactions between class and class are part of it - Persuasion takes in a lot of subtle social gradations - and so too is the hopeful message of lost opportunities redeemed. There's something else, though, something that we see in the action that outstrips any of Austen's other books. Persuasion is sexy.

The plot is rich in tantalising thrills. Frederick Wentworth loved Anne Elliot, and she, foolishly, rejected him, breaking both their hearts in the process. Eight years later, he comes back to the neighbourhood. They are often in each other's company, but cannot speak. It is clear he has not forgiven her - though to heighten the suspense, we as readers sense that the very fact he's still angry with her is a sign he still loves her; his passion has never cooled to indifference, and is ready to return given the opportunity. But because of circumstances, they have no time alone together; they can only guess at each other by watching across an unsuspecting crowd. The sexual tension surpasses even that of Pride and Prejudice, and the language, too, is sensual. Anne 'trembled' after an indirect declaration that she doesn't love Wentworth's rival. Recalling moments when Wentworth seemed to praise her, she experiences 'a faint blush at some recollections'  - and how tantalising is that laconic 'some'! Austen's characters usually blush from embarrassment; here, though, is a character blushing with excitement, a warm revelation. Anne is even seen 'beginning to breathe very quick' after speaking to him. Physical closeness is felt: Anne anticipates Wentworth's presence by looking at a setting and thinking 'a few months more, and he, perhaps, may be walking here,' inserting him as a physical presence into the scene before her; she manoeuvres around concert benches to get 'within reach' of him; there's a ravishing moment early in the story in which Anne, hung upon by a misbehaving nephew, finds the burden suddenly lifted off her - a perfect metaphor for the role the Austenian hero plays towards his heroine, but also a moment of near-embrace, of sudden, unexpected touch in which his strength is at her back. 'We are not boy and girl,' Anne reflects to herself, and indeed they're not: with constant separation and the restrictions of etiquette to magnify every moment of 'half averted eyes, and more than half expressive glance', this is Austen at her most erotic. Compare Anne's gasps and flushes to the Pride and Prejudice proposal:


Elizabeth, feeling all the more than common awkwardness and anxiety of his situation, now forced herself to speak; and immediately, though not very fluently, gave him to understand that her sentiments had undergone so material a change since the period to which he alluded, as to make her receive with gratitude and pleasure his present assurances. The happiness which this reply produced was such as he had probably never felt before, and he expressed himself on the occasion as sensibly and as warmly as a man violently in love can be supposed to do.


... and you can see just how far Austen has come. Trembling and rapid breathing have replaced 'awkwardness and anxiety', as if sensuality has come to life somewhere between the two. Lord Grey of Falloden's famous remark on Austen comes to mind:


Jane Austen is to me the greatest wonder among novel writers. I do not mean that she is the greatest novel writer, but she seems to me the greatest wonder. Imagine, if you were to instruct an author or an authoress to write a novel under the limitations within which Jane Austen writes! Suppose you were to say, "Now you must write a novel, but you must have no heroes or heroines in the accepted sense of the word. You may have naval officers, but they must always be on leave or on land, never on active service. You must have no striking villains; you may have a mild rake, but keep him well in the background, and if you are really going to produce something detestable, it must be so because of its small meannesses, as, for instance, the detestable Aunt Norris in 'Mansfield Park'; you must have no very exciting plots; you must have no thrilling adventures; a sprained ankle on a country walk is allowable, but you must no go much beyond this. You must have no moving descriptions of scenery; you must work without the help of all these; and as to passion, there must be none of it. You may, of course, have love, but it must be so carefully handled that it very often seems to get little above the temperature of liking. With all these limitations you are to write, not only one novel, but several, which, not merely by popular appreciation, but by the common consent of the greatest critics shall be classed amongst the first rank of the novels written in your language in your country.

It's a handsome tribute in its way, but he's wrong about Persuasion. It's quietly done, peeping from the margins, but in her last novel, passion literally breathes upon the page. Anne Elliot may be 'almost too good', but she is, to a unique degree among her literary sisters, finally and deliciously embodied. 

What can we see of this in the first sentence? 

Anne is more of a physical presence than a plot one in Persuasion: things happen to and around her, and only glances and hints allow her to shape her destiny. As befits a self-effacing character - the same thing happens with Fanny Price - we begin not with her, but with the people around her who will crowd her into corners. Sir Walter is not present during many passages of the book, both because as an individual he's too selfish to leave his pleasures, and because as a character he's too single-note to adapt well to every scene. 'Vanity was the beginning and end of Sir Walter Elliot's character', Austen tells us crisply after a page and a half of watching him play with the Baronetage, and when a character begins and ends with a single trait, their fictional possibilities are limited. 

It is a well-sketched trait, though, that's for certain. Austen loves serious readers - you can usually tell who her heroines are going to marry on the strength of it - and never opening books, in her context, immediately debars Sir Walter from her approval. More than that, though, he's a man who only reads 'the Baronetage' - that is, the guide to the baronets of Britain. Now, while to be a baronet is definitely to be blue of blood, there's a sly poke at Sir Walter in her choice of rank: baronet is the lowest of the inheritable titles, higher than a knight but not a full peer. Later in the novel, in fact, we see Sir Walter cravenly courting the attention of his higher-ranking cousin Lady Dalrymple; he cannot be unaware that to be a baronet, aristocratic though you are, is not to be above the whole of humanity. But he screens himself from that knowledge: it's not a peerage he's reading, not a list of every rank of nobility. He confines himself to the Baronetage, pleasingly full of more arriviste baronets than himself that he can look comfortably down upon, where he need be troubled with no odious comparisons. 

Sir Walter is, by naturalistic standards, nearly insane with vanity. He feels 'admiration and respect' for those who rank alongside him or slightly above him, 'pity and contempt' for those who do not - and to admire your equals in rank simply for being your equals in rank is mere extended self-love. We know this even before Austen's sharp conclusion to the sentence, the 'interest which never failed' in reading the dry summary of his own life - a life he turns away from the reality of, to read the official records about. It's clear from the beginning that his life could do with some attention: obviously he's an empty-headed man if he's entertained in an 'idle hour' by reading the same page over and over, but he's also ignoring 'domestic affairs'. A few paragraphs on, we see the extent of his madness: that he's recorded not only his daughter's marriage - seeing no foolishness in this emendation that can only be read by people who already know about it - but, 'most accurately', the 'day of the month' of his wife's demise. His good lady's death occasions no deeper mourning than a careful adjustment to his favourite page - no reflection except the desire to keep his image impeccable. Pride destroys any kind of health in his family, and at the beginning of the story has led him near bankruptcy. What we see, in fact, is the perfect image of a latter-day Narcissus, gazing entranced into his own destruction. 

The structure of the sentence supports the circularity of Sir Walter's thinking. It's a long opener, the longest of all Austen's novels - a hundred and two words, in fact, nearly twice as long as the fifty-six words of its nearest competitor, Mansfield Park - and in its repeated 'there' at the beginning of each new clause, it achieves a rhythm that's either soothing or maddening - soothing for Sir Walter, returning again and again to the reliable, controllable page, and maddening for us, watching him find the same wrong answer to every question life throws at him. It's almost like listening to a mother murmur 'there, there' to a child, or rather, like watching a childish sensibility murmuring 'there, there' to itself, when in fact it has no right not to act like an adult. In the name of historical accuracy, I should admit that far as I can tell from Internet research, the phrase 'there, there' may not have been in use in 1816; whether or not it was a literal comfort phrase, it has the air of self-soothing through repetition. Self-soothing, and also mockery: we can almost hear the rhythm of harsh laughter. Sir Walter's opening line is one of circles, not progress: before we're told that vanity is his 'beginning and end', we know it rhythmically. Both in action and in tempo, he always comes back to the same place. And it's a place that narrows down. He begins by looking at 'the limited remnant of the earliest patents' (that is, the old aristocracy), then at the 'creations of the last century' (that is, more recent baronets), but he's not reading as an historian: he reads them only to compare with himself. Like his psyche, the sentence ends where it began, with Sir Walter Elliot.

Austen never begins with dialogue, but this is an unusual piece of scene-setting. Often she opens with a bit of family history, but Sir Walter Elliot, part of a noble family, is presented solo. It's a neat reflection of the way that, despite his preoccupation with family as heritage, he isn't actually interested in his family as a living unit: he's only interested insofar as it reflects on him, so while Mansfield Park begins with the marriage of 'Miss Maria Ward' and 'Sir Thomas Bertram' and Sense and Sensibility with the statement that 'The family of Dashwood had long been settled in Sussex' - sentences about how families form and live - the Elliot family, in this opening sentence, exists only on a doctored page in a book. They do not interact; they are merely there in the record. Meanwhile Sir Walter Elliot is, uniquely for an opening character, actually seen in action. Northanger Abbey tells us that 'No one who had ever seen Catherine Morland in her infancy would have supposed her born to be an heroine,' and Emma that 'Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition, seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence; and had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her,' - but these are characters in summary, not characters in motion. Sir Walter is in the action of taking up a book: not exactly as a single action, but rather as a habit, which fits with Austen's tendency to begin with generalities, but even so, the habit is that of single action we can easily picture. As befits Persuasion's more sensuous tone, the first character we see is unusually tangible.

His repeated action is also, of course, the opposite of the book's narrative and moral drive. Anne marries a newly-rich man with no aristocratic background to speak of, and is glad to do so; being trapped in old patterns is a comfort to Sir Walter, but a slow death for her. Persuasion is a book of second chances - another reason it's so popular, containing as it does a message of hope that even when we think life is over, good things may still happen - but what we see here is a character for whom second chances are of no interest. He is too complacent about what he already has - even though all he has is his title, his debts and a family that aren't really happy and don't really love him. Unsurprisingly for a man of the domestic habits we see in this first sentence, his children and he have no strong connection: his eldest daughter and he rub along in mutual admiration of their own beauty and name; his youngest daughter displeases him by being 'coarse' from her discontent in marriage, a discontent largely lying in the fact that he has raised her to have so much of 'the Elliot pride' that she feels ill-used at every minor inconvenience. And then there's Anne, obedient but ashamed, in whom he takes practically no interest. We begin with the cause of Anne's problems, caught in the act of repetitively closing himself off from the harm he wreaks. 

This is the angry element of the book. To say that 'Sir Walter Elliot was a man who, for his own amusement, never took up any book but the Baronetage' is an epigram. Austen, that famous author of 'It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of good fortune, must be in want of a wife,' was not willing to stop there. 'There' extends and extends, measured but hammering, until we are absolutely prevented from picturing Sir Walter acting with any credit under any circumstances at all. Condemnation overmasters laughter. The very fact that we begin with a character to dislike is new: while it's not unusual for Austen to begin with characters who are less than helpful to the heroine - Pride and Prejudice and Mansfield Park do the same - it is unusual to begin with a single individual who is not the heroine (as we begin in Northanger Abbey and Emma), but is a problem all on their own. Problematic interactions or settings have begun her books before, but while Pride and Prejudice and Mansfield Park begin with faulty individuals, all of them have some redeeming features. Mrs Bennet is funny, and her concern for her daughters' marriage is not unreasonable; Mr Bennet isn't very responsible, but he loves his Lizzy; Aunt Bertram may be lazy and useless, but she's fond of Fanny in her vague way; Sir Thomas may be heavy-handed and unobservant, but he's principled and well-intentioned. Sir Walter, mounted on his own like Catherine Morland and Emma Woodhouse, is a villain. There is nothing about him at all redeemable; the most you can say is that his vanity sometimes can be directed towards a less-than-harmful end. What Austen places before us is not a piece of family history or a glittering joke, but somebody to hate. 

What we see in this first sentence, in fact, is deadly serious. Anne, famously among Austen heroines, is not a girl who may never get her chance at happiness: she is a woman who had her chance, threw it away, and now has to live in what looks to be a dreary and inescapable ever after. She's twenty-seven - the same age at which Charlotte Lucas marries the loathsome Mr Collins knowing it's her only alternative to dependent spinsterhood, the same age Marianne Dashwood declares is too old for a woman to ever 'feel or inspire affection again.' In carrying the first sentence into clause after clause after the initial swipe, Austen is presenting Anne's father - and thus her whole situation - as, literally, beyond a joke. Things have gone too far, too much has happened, and it's been happening for too long. It's no longer funny.

The plot of Persuasion is truly glorious, and its tenderness towards women past their 'bloom' is righteous. To this reader, it would have been served by a greater degree of polish - as the quotes above point out, Austen (like many comic writers) was a rewriter, and a refinement of the acridity, a bringing-forth of the voices, a gentle balancing of the partisanship could have made it truly great. Tragically, of course, Austen was already in poor health when she finished it, and would appear to have done what writers often do with an unfavourite project: she looked back, editing Northanger Abbey, and looked forward, beginning the never-completed Sanditon. Then she died, at the age of forty-one, and there were no more novels. Or, you could say, she died, leaving the whole world to her children and grandchildren, to every novelist who followed after her. Both are true.

Persuasion, from its first sentence on, is a difficult place to be. Anger burns through it; the writing is not ladylike but aggressive. 'If I am a wild beast I cannot help it,' she wrote to her sister Cassandra. 'It is not my own fault.' And there is a wildness to Jane Austen, a fury and a hunger and a vicious, desperate, brilliant imagination that only sometimes moderated itself into wit. Soon she'll be appearing on our £10 notes, thanks to the campaign of Caroline Criado-Perez, an irony we can imagine she might laugh at with greater pleasure: finally, Jane Austen will have contact with unlimited money.

She might laugh more sharply at the chosen quotation, though: 'I declare after all there is no enjoyment quite like reading!' Austen didn't say that. Caroline Bingley said it in Pride and Prejudice: contemptuous, pretentious Miss Bingley, feigning a love of books to impress the wealthy Mr Darcy. Nobody in Austen who truly understood the value of books would exclaim so showily about them. Wherever value is located, it is not in the declaration. Any Austen lover knows as much.

But perhaps, in a way, it's appropriate. There is no enjoyment quite like reading Jane Austen. Sometimes, reading her isn't quite like enjoyment. Persuasion, for many readers, is one of those books: it is too relentless, right from its protracted opening sentence, to read in comfort. But still, here she is, emblazoned on a banknote, mistress of the edged bon mot but stubbornly resistant to the soundbite, quoted with a pretentious incomprehension worthy of Mrs Elton, exposing a rich man to the ridicule of her readers. It's so ill a choice, making the Bank of England's governor look so stupid, that it's tempting to feel it could only have happened with Austen. One feigner of literacy quotes another, and Austen's many devoted followers, as one, exchange a glance and get the joke. You can't condense Austen down to a comfortable phrase, for what does she do, right at the opening of her last book, if not savage a man for being too pleased with himself and too happy to stay in his comfort zone? The bank should have seen it coming. Nearly two hundred years after her death, and Jane Austen is still making fools of those who seek to control her.

Comments:
Yes, yes, yes. Persuasion is my favourite Austen and you have done a wonderful job of explaining why.


 
I had never thought of Persuasion in quite that way -- what, Austen SEXY? -- but you are absolutely right of course.

This is the most passionate of Austen's works, both in the romance and in the seething anger that pervades it. And I suspect that's what makes its partisans so devoted to it; it is a book that one simply can't be "meh" about. It is too uncomfortable, too raw, too *alive* to be consigned as a mere period piece.

I think it's that vividness that allows readers like me to overlook the many technical and artistic flaws that do permeate the work. It is a book about changes, about the new replacing the old: the "new men" like Wentworth rendering irrelevant the old agrarian economy that the Elliot family reflects; the way that money is replacing "breeding" as a marker in society; the city is replacing the countryside as the place where things of importance happen; relationships based on affinity and industry are replacing those based upon genetics and propinquity; etc.

Not all of these changes are to the "good", of course. The plight of Mrs. Smith, for example, shows how some people can fall between the cracks in this changing society.

But of all Austen's heroines, Anne Elliott is the only one I see completely (and without regret) cutting herself off from her old connections and starting a new life with her husband and his circle. If this is a good thing or a bad thing, of course, is up to the individual reader (after all, Anne's family was hardly abusive, "merely" monumentally selfish). But it leaves me with a sense of hope and, hmm... vindication? maybe? that I get for none of her other heroines, whom I visualize being stuck coping wearily with their family's selfish demands until they finally die off.

 
It is too uncomfortable, too raw, too *alive* to be consigned as a mere period piece.

It's very interesting, how differently different people read it. To me, it's certainly uncomfortable and raw, but it feels less alive than the other books; the sense of authorial anger, to me, drains life from the characters and situations. I'm thinking of Oscar Wilde's De Profundis: "Hate, you had yet to learn, is, intellectually considered, the eternal negation. Considered from the point of view of the emotions it is a form of atrophy, and kills everything but itself." Persuasion, to me, feels atrophied, negated, as if the psychic energy that should have been spent in imagination was divided between imagination and anger. The passion in it did not feel entirely like a passion for the novel itself, and so the novel engaged me less.


But it leaves me with a sense of hope and, hmm... vindication? maybe? that I get for none of her other heroines, whom I visualize being stuck coping wearily with their family's selfish demands until they finally die off.

Again, to me, that feels like a reason to like it less. Of course, real life does provide us with examples of families that people have to break contact with, and sometimes it's the right thing to do - but on the whole, that's a tragedy more than a triumph. It's tragic that it gets to that point. In the other novels, retaining some kind of a relationship with family is a compromise, but it's a compromise from a position of security and strength, which feels more ... human, I guess. More connected. Of course I'm not saying it's inhuman for a real person to cease contact with their family, but in fiction - well, the very fact that Austen wrote the Elliots to be people that Anne would lose absolutely nothing if she gave up on them feels like a failure of characterisation. There are few people like that, and the people who are are usually severely damaged and to be pitied as well as avoided. Austen gives them neither worth nor pity, and to me, that feels flat.

Different strokes, I guess. :-)
 
I admire the perfection that is Emma -- I like Emma herself-- but I don't love it as I do Persuasion.

Like hapax, I see Persuaion's artistic shortcomings, but it cheers me up immensely to read it anyway.

Of course Persuasion is romantic, and even sexy, in a way that's as powerful as it's restrained. I alwyas smile at Anne and Wentworth arriving at an understanding during a walk up the street, with "obliging compliance for public view, and smiles reined in and spirits dancing in private rapture." When else does an Austen heroine get to be rapturous? And after comparing Anne's "gasps and flushes" to Elizabeth's flustered pleasure, just compare Wentworth's letter to Darcy's "sensible" warmth. It isn't a sensible letter, but it's effective!

And I like the way that, although Anne lost her first chance at happiness by letting herself be talked at, she gains her second chance by speaking up for herself-- well, for women in general, but Wentworth is only too happy to take her words personally.

Oh, yes, opening lines: oddly, my battered old Bantam Classic paperback has a slightly different version. Instead of a full stop after "an interest which never failed," there's a dash-- and the sentence continues with "this was the page at which the favorite volume opened:
ELLIOT OF KELLYNCH-HALL"

And without a period after the "Hall," you could even consider Sir Walter's Who's-who details to be part of the same sentence; there's no full stop until after "Mary, born Nov. 20, 1791."

The results of a very quick on-line search all agree with your version. I wonder which way "the paragraph originally stood from the printer's hands"?

But if you do consider it part of the same sentence, then Sir Walter's "self-soothing" phrases are much choppier and less sonorous than the phrases used to get him there; bare-bones facts laid out in one- and two-syllable words.

Is "Kellynch" a likely English place name? It has an unusual sound to me, for some reason, and google only brings up Austen references.
 
Is "Kellynch" a likely English place name? It has an unusual sound to me, for some reason, and google only brings up Austen references.

It sounds unusual, but not impossible. It looks 'old', like an Anglicisation of a non-Saxon word, which fits with the sense of aristocracy. I'm no etymologist, but at least to my native ears, it could be the local rendering of some pre-modern invader's title.

Austen did tend to invent names; 'Longbourn' and 'Highbury' are fictional places, for instance - but they're much more ordinary sounding. Which is part of how it works, I think; the Elliot family hold themselves separate from the invigorating influence of normal people, and the rather harsh-sounding, spiky-looking name of their family seat, of which they're so proud, is likewise out of the common flow of friendly English words.

Plus, of course, it has an assonance with 'Elliot', which gives the fairly ordinary-sounding surname a more alien echo. It's a delicate trick, to have a name which sounds nice on the heroine without softening the villains, and I think that half-rhyme with 'Kellynch' is part of the trick: it's 'Sir Walter Elliot, of Kellynch Hall,' right from the beginning.

--

just compare Wentworth's letter to Darcy's "sensible" warmth. It isn't a sensible letter, but it's effective!

I think that's partly an issue of translation. 'Sensible' is one of those Austen words, like 'amiable', that comes out of that wonderful eighteenth-century diction and has slightly changed meaning since. In Austen's context, 'sensible' is associated with sensibility; it has some meaning of good judgement but not, I think, of caution. 'I am sensible of your meaning' is probably the closest comparison: it seems to mean 'sensitive enough to understand and respond appropriately to things.' In the context of Darcy's proposal, 'sensibly' is probably better understood as 'feelingly'.

So in that context, you could say that Wentworth's letter is also expressing himself 'sensibly and warmly.' It's just that we get to read what he actually says rather than hear it summed up in a couple of adjectives!

 
But if you do consider it part of the same sentence, then Sir Walter's "self-soothing" phrases are much choppier and less sonorous than the phrases used to get him there; bare-bones facts laid out in one- and two-syllable words

Yes, you're right, that's a fascinating contrast. Austen provides him with the soothing rhythms that suggest the action and effects of habit, but what he's actually soothed by is not something that would soothe a 'sensible' man (in either the modern or the Austenian sense). And it's not soothing either in content or in rhythm. The very baldness of his entry in comparison to the mellifluous lead-up emphasises just what poverty of experience he's confining himself to.

And there's another interesting contrast; near the end of the book, we hear Wentworth's experience described in which, during the stay in Lyme, he comes to see why he loves Anne more than Louisa:

There, he had learnt to distinguish between the steadiness of principle and the obstinacy of self-will, between the darings of heedlessness and the resolution of a collected mind. There he had seen everything to exalt in his estimation the woman he had lost; and there begun to deplore the pride, the folly, the madness of resentment, which had kept him from trying to regain her when thrown in his way.

(Wish I'd noticed this earlier, or I would have included it in the essay! If I ever rewrite, I think I will.) But it's a very significant contrast: we see the two men who most shape Anne's destiny bookending the novel, presented in a sequences of 'There's. Sir Walter's are all about refusing to learn better and admiring himself; Frederick Wentworth's are all about letting go of 'pride' and coming to admire someone else. It casts the first sentence even more into condemnation by providing it with a stark contrast.
 
it looks 'old', like an Anglicisation of a non-Saxon word, which fits with the sense of aristocracy. I'm no etymologist, but at least to my native ears, it could be the local rendering of some pre-modern invader's title.

That makes sense. It sounded almost Irish to me, what with the "Kell" and the "Lynch" but surely the Elliots are not a mere "Irish creation."

But now that I take the trouble to look up "Lynch" by itself, Wikipedia tells me that there is an English version derived from the Old English "hlinc" meaning hill, and that there are both Lynch families and Lynch villages in England. So, something that assonates-- is that a word? -- with "Elliot" combined with a "real" name gets you to Kellynch, I guess.

And if "Lynch" means "hill" or "hillside village," well, the Elliots are good at looking down from the heights-- but a hill is not a mountain.

This has been your regularly scheduled episode of Reading Too Much Into Names.
 
In the context of Darcy's proposal, 'sensibly' is probably better understood as 'feelingly'.

I knew that, and I should have remembered it. I think, also, I was probably influenced by the closest modern cousin of that kind of usage: you usually see "sensibility" combined with "delicate," as in a refined sensitivity but not a passionate one.

Of course, we could compare Wentworth's letter with Darcy's long, long epistle earlier in P&P, but that wouldn't be fair at all. Darcy hasn't advanced nearly as far, in his affection for Elizabeth or his understanding of himself, at that point, as when he speaks to her directly, so sensibly and warmly.

Frederick Wentworth's [there's] are all about letting go of 'pride' and coming to admire someone else. It casts the first sentence even more into condemnation by providing it with a stark contrast.
That's an excellent point, and one I never noticed before either.

We talk about Anne's first and second chances, but really, she had three. There was the first engagement, broken on Anne's side because of family pride, but there was another turning point two years later, when Frederick met his first professional successes but his own pride prevented him from writing to her and asking again.

By the third time, they were able to learn wisdom. After she said no, and then he said no, they were both able to reach a rapturous Yes.

----

About that ten-pound note-- maybe they should have gone with Anne's line: "I will not allow books to prove any thing."

Of course, Anne is commenting on the fact that "men have had every advantage in telling their story." But the Anne who speaks is a female character in a work of literature by a female author who does an excellent job of telling women's stories. It's positively meta.
 
We talk about Anne's first and second chances, but really, she had three. There was the first engagement, broken on Anne's side because of family pride, but there was another turning point two years later, when Frederick met his first professional successes but his own pride prevented him from writing to her and asking again.

I have to admit, that's actually one of the things that bothers me. It feels like a last-minute contrivance to shift the blame still further off Anne. She rejects Wentworth off-stage, so we never get to judge her in action, and when we're first told of it, it's blamed on the persuasion of others. Yet when they're finally engaged, Anne is justified still more; by the end, she gets to tell him:

I have been thinking over the past, and trying impartially to judge of the right and wrong, I mean with regard to myself; and I must believe that I was right, much as I suffered from it, that I was perfectly right in being guided by the friend whom you will love better than you do now .... I have now, as far as such a sentiment is allowable in human nature, nothing to reproach myself with...

And in the face of this declaration that she was right to turn him down under materialistic advice, Wentworth doesn't even cough. Instead, he takes further blame to himself (for, essentially, taking her at her word when she said she wouldn't marry him) and concedes that in marrying her, he is 'happier than I deserve.'

So by the end, blame is even shifted to Wentworth for not fixing Anne's mistake for her, and her 'mistake' is now presented as a rightful choice.

Again, we can compare this to Austen's other heroines. Catherine and Emma get to marry men who 'deserve' them by being more intelligent and having better sense, and loving them despite their faults; in return, each must learn to concede that they're sometimes wrong and their husband's contradictions may be worth listening to. Marianne marries a man who has loved her constantly despite her neglect of him; in return, she must come to set aside her cherished ideals and see his solid virtues. Edmund 'deserves' Fanny in that he's been the mainstay of her youth, her lifelong advocate and the preserver of her relationship with her beloved brother - the person who has, in effect, saved her from an entirely orphaned life; in return, she has been his best friend and comforter in times of stress and heartbreak. Darcy saves Elizabeth's entire family from ruin; in return, she improves his understanding of himself and liberates him from the snobbery and narrowness of his aristocratic family. Edward is loving towards Elinor after the death of her father destroys her life, and at least visibly struggles to do the right thing about his engagement; in return, she is forbearing and discreet when she could take the opportunity for revenge. There's a mutuality of deserts on each side in each case.


 
Except in Persuasion. Anne is at everyone's service, yes, but what service does she do for Wentworth? Learn it's acceptable to marry a poor man? No, because by the time he comes back, he's rich. Learn that she must resist the persuasion of others? Not really; it's openly stated that she was right to be persuaded first time round, and by the second time, family opposition has been removed except for Lady Russell, who has by this time had it proved she was wrong to recommend Mr Elliot and has 'nothing less [...] to do, than to admit she had been pretty completely wrong.' Do particular service for Wentworth? No, she does nothing for him more substantial than keep her head when Louisa Musgrove is injured, which is as much for the sake of her own family as for him, and when Mary supplants her as nurse she doesn't even have to go through the Elinor-like sacrifice of nursing back to health the woman her beloved plans to marry. Accept, as Elizabeth does, that he, like her, has some objectionable relations and agree to put up with them? Nope; his family and friends are all pretty much lovely and far preferable to her own; the worst you can say about any of them is that Captain Benwick gets over the death of his first fiancee too quickly, and by falling in love with Louisa he both frees up Wentworth and provides Anne with the opportunity for her famous speech on enduring love which actually provokes the proposal, so all in all he does Anne a tremendous favour and is hardly an unwelcome connection.

All Anne has to do in her relationship to Wentworth is to love and want him - which, since he's presented as attractive enough to cause a flutter in just about every young woman he meets, is hardly a feat. And all she does to be more than Wentworth 'deserves' is to carry on being the exact same person she's always been and wait for everyone, including him, to apologise for not seeing it sooner.

Which has its appeal as a wish-fulfilment fantasy, undoubtedly, but as a narrative it alienates me. If it weren't for the narrative's insistent on Anne's rightness and everybody else's wrongness in every situation it wouldn't be such a problem for me, but as it is ... pace Waldman, I don't find the characters 'smug', but I do find them pushed too hard. There are just moments of over-emphasis that a higher degree of finish could doubtless have helped, but which I find narrative irritants that stop me from getting fully engaged.
 
About that ten-pound note-- maybe they should have gone with Anne's line: "I will not allow books to prove any thing."

Or how about Mr Darcy from Pride and Prejudice: 'You expect me to account for opinions which you choose to call mine, but which I have never acknowledged.'
 
I don't see Anne quite the way that you do. Yes, she's almost perfect, but her fault at the beginning of the novel is a huge one: she's a moral coward. Allowing herself to have been persuaded to give up Wentworth in the first place may have been a result of a young girl's willingness to believe that her mother-figure knew better than she did herself, but wasn't it also the result of her father's bullying? She's not brave enough to stand up for herself.

By the time the novel opens she has at least developed enough of a spine to think for herself, but she isn't brave enough to speak up or act positively in her own interest. She sees all sorts of present and potential problems (her father's overspending, her sister's friendship with Mrs. Clay) but can't figure out how to warn anyone about them. In contrast to Louisa Musgrove, she's completely terrified of going after what she wants. Later, she presents the problem of Mr. Elliot to herself in terms of danger, saying that she couldn't be persuaded into doing something dangerous like marrying him.

You could say that what she does, ultimately, to deserve Wentworth is to become, for one moment, as brave as he (a naval captain) is: her argument with Captain Hargraves about men, women, and love is the one time we see her willing to stand up for her own views, without even throwing in a "Lady Russell says I'm right" to back her up.

Nevertheless, she's my favorite Austen heroine and Persuasion is my favorite of Austen's novels. It's because she is an adult, and she and Wentworth are so physically aware of each other.
 
Well, I'm in the minority here and no mistake! :-)

I can see the argument for the moral cowardice position. To take the contrary position, I'd say there's a fair number of occasions where she does go after what she wants, quite aggressively for an Austen heroine - all that seat-shuffling at the concert, for example - but it takes a while before what she wants seems obtainable. She's fairly quick to spot and quietly work on opportunities to get Captain Wentworth's attention as soon as it becomes clear that she might get more than 'cold politeness' from him. She even eavesdrops on him as early as chapter 9 - by accident, in the arrangement of circumstances, but she evidently listens very carefully to find out as much about 'how her own character was considered by Captain Wentworth' as she can. I read her as watchful and active in pursuit of him - just confined, by circumstances, to pursue in a very, very subtle and careful way. And in that context, I'd interpret her behaviour towards him less as moral cowardice and more as sexual intelligence - both in the erotic sense, and in the sense of the social role her sex confines her to. She has a fine instinct for playing a moment to her best advantage, managing to draw on desire without stepping on the wrong side of modesty (and that wouldn't just be a social risk, but would lessen her attraction in the eyes of a man of propriety) - which is quite a talent.

Which is the thing I like about her - or rather, what I like about the book. I can't click with Anne herself, but the depiction of sexual vitality navigated around a series of incredibly limited spaces is very compelling.

How would you square the moral cowardice theory with the fact that Anne's final statement that 'But I mean, that I was right in submitting to her, and that if I had done otherwise, I should have suffered more in continuing the engagement than I did even in giving it up, because I should have suffered in my conscience. I have now, as far as such a sentiment is allowable in human nature, nothing to reproach myself with; and if I mistake not, a strong sense of duty is no bad part of a woman's portion.' - which Captain Wentworth does not disagree with? Because that seems to cast her submission as morally appropriate rather than morally weak?
 
Hmmm. I don't read Anne as actively working for what she wants (that is, to attract Wentworth) until he shows up in Bath. She acknowledges to herself that he's what she wants, but she seems to me to be perfectly willing to let him chase Louisa if he'd rather, and not to be active.

Her final comment I see as having a double purpose: first, since Wentworth has admitted that Louisa is (or was, at least) too headstrong and independent, to remind him that he's right and now has the better woman. And second, I see it as a way of excusing herself, to herself. All these years she has to have been thinking about how she blew her chance at happiness -- surely she consoled herself with the idea that at least she was obedient. And she's told herself that the consequences of bravery would have been dire. But would it really have been her conscience reproaching her, or would it just have been her father, Elizabeth, and Lady Russell? I know that if I couldn't undo what I had done (and I agree that in the society of the time Anne could not have dropped Wentworth a note saying "hey, I saw in the paper that you're ashore, come and see me and let's make up") I'd rather find some way to think of myself that put me in a better moral light, and excused my mistake, than spend the rest of my life thinking "I am alone because I was cowardly."

I know I sound like I have a low opinion of Anne Elliot. But I actually have enormous sympathy for her, and take pleasure in the moments when she's able to act bravely. Maybe by the time she and Wentworth have children, she'll be able to put her foot down about how they're going to be educated or something. And maybe that's the tradeoff that couple engages in: he gives her reason to be brave, she teaches him not to be deceived by outward shows of courage.
 
So by the end, blame is even shifted to Wentworth for not fixing Anne's mistake for her, and her 'mistake' is now presented as a rightful choice.

But I don't see it as "not fixing Anne's mistake." I agree with him that it was his own mistake.

Maybe I just like things that go by threes.

And there is something to Anne's point that it was reasonable for her, as girl still in her minority, to be guided by the people who were looking after her interests, whereas two years later when he'd had his first promotion and his first prize-money and sh was over 21, she was in a stronger position to decide for herself and with a stronger basis for the decision.

Because Jane Austen was not one to discount the power of money, or the problems of not having enough of it. Think of poor Mrs Price, Fanny's mother: she was a young woman who married a young lieutenant "to disoblige her family," and found herself with a husband who didn't rise in his profession, with a houseful of children and not enough money to support them with.

Lieutenant Wentworth is both more energetic and better connected than Lieutenant Price. But still, when it came to good professional placements and chances of prize money, luck could be as important as merit. Indeed, Wentworth only met Anne in the first place because he was "on the beach" for six months, even after his first professional success. What if he'd been wounded in his next posting, and "missed the tide" that led to further promotion and fortune? Anne really could have found herself in Mrs Price's shoes, although I hope that Wentworth wouldn't have turned to drink to console himself!

As Anne says, she wouldn't give such advice herself, now. But she perfectly understands Lady Russell's qualms. Two years later, though, the situation was different.

(And now I'm having "Maid of the Sweet Brown Knowe" earworms; a song I've always disliked. Why shouldn't she be allowed to change her mind?)
 
I know I sound like I have a low opinion of Anne Elliot. But I actually have enormous sympathy for her, and take pleasure in the moments when she's able to act bravely.

While I, of course, have the opposite problem: I have too high an opinion of Anne Elliot! Or at least, I would if she were a real person.

--

And there is something to Anne's point that it was reasonable for her, as girl still in her minority, to be guided by the people who were looking after her interests, whereas two years later when he'd had his first promotion and his first prize-money and sh was over 21, she was in a stronger position to decide for herself and with a stronger basis for the decision.

Oh, to be sure. But if that's the case, then that tends to support Austen's 'rather too good' letter: Anne strays once again towards being like Lear's Old Man of Hong Kong who never did anything wrong. It feels like the wish-fulfilment of having a clear conscience as well as a happy ending, and it's just ... cruder character writing. Makes her feel more like a blank, because Anne so consistently plays that legal fiction, 'a reasonable person', and 'a reasonable person' is by definition generic.

It's rather silly to speculate about a writer's motivations, but as Austen's dead and hopefully too happy in writers' heaven to mind ... it feels like a partway successful experiment. Anne is passionate in a way that none of the other heroines are, to wit, she's sexually passionate. For a woman to be writing a sexually passionate heroine in that era was a pretty bold step, and the ways Austen describes it, though delicate and discreet, are also intimate and detailed.

So would she begin with a sexual heroine who was also an interestingly flawed person? There are reasons why not. If the heroine is in any way selfish, readers may read immodesty rather than 'generous attachment' into her feelings. If there's an element of sexual fantasy, keeping the heroine a little blank is by now a recognised method of success. I dunno about you, but my sexual fantasises aren't exactly my best character work - what people are doing is more important than who they are - and for a reader, too, a character who's mostly distinctive for her yearnings is easier to identify with.

Those are anticipating-reader-reaction reasons, but I can think of a more primal one: if a writer is trying to sound new depths of experience in one area, it can draw their energy away from others. In Anne Elliot, Austen was challenging herself by writing a more physical creation with a lot more focus on the minutiae of her inner experience; since this was a new direction, it's not entirely surprising that other parts of the novel might feel a bit sketched-in. (Which they do to me, at any rate.)
 
All that said, I agree that Anne's "I have nothing to reproach myself with" and Wentworth's "I was my own worst enemy" do seem asymmetrical. But that's where I hear the righteous anger leaking through again. Persuasion says something like, all right then, if Duty is more important to a woman than Emma's wit or Lizzie's charm or Fanny's moral clarity, I'll give you Duty, and I'll see Duty rewarded.

Maybe it's wish-fulfillment, but I can't help but like it.

There is one other thing that, perhaps, we could say that Anne does to deserve Wentworth: she doesn't Settle.

It's been remarked that Anne is the same age as Charlotte Lucas when she Settles for the dreadful Mr Collins, because she prefers even marriage to such a man to life as a single woman of no fortune.

Anne isn't interested in Settling for Mr. Elliot. (And I never could figure out what that Mr Elliot/Mrs Clay/ Mrs Smith subplot was there for.) And earlier-- right around the time that Wentworth was refusing to ask again-- Anne is offered a much more suitable match in Charles Musgrove. All right, he's not the sharpest knife in the drawer, to use an Irishism I've picked up from books. He's a commonplace young man. But he's a much better deal than Mr. Collins; he's not stupid, he's not self-absorbed to the exclusion of anyone else's point of view. He appears to be fond of his wife and a good father to his children. A good-natured young man, and the heir to a comfortable estate. it would have been a perfectly good match.


But Anne has known "true attachment" and she values it, and herself, enough, to decline Charles's proposal. And not to ask advice from Lady Russell or anyone else, either.

Compare that to Frederick's "I'm ready to marry the first pretty girl I see."

Not to be all Only One True Love about it, the narrator concedes that Anne's constancy is at least in part a result of the restricted society in which she moves. But again, she knows what "attachment," to put it delicately, feels like, and she knows she doesn't feel it for Charles. And because she's brave enough to face the risk of spinsterhood and (relative) poverty after her father dies, she's free to accept Wentworth-- after he's luckily disentangled from his thoughtlessly incurred potential obligations to Louisa.

So yes, he is luckier than he deserves.

 
Cross-posted-- I got distracted in between posts one and two.

So would she begin with a sexual heroine who was also an interestingly flawed person? There are reasons why not. If the heroine is in any way selfish, readers may read immodesty rather than 'generous attachment' into her feelings. If there's an element of sexual fantasy, keeping the heroine a little blank is by now a recognised method of success.

Shall have to think about that while I start boiling pots for dinner.

But it's common to wonder what Persuasion might have been like if Austen had lived longer, isn't it? Would she have smoothed out the crudities and deepened the characterization, or was this her best attempt at this new departure? Who knows?
 
Post a Comment



<< Home

Archives

July 2006   August 2006   September 2006   October 2006   November 2006   December 2006   January 2007   February 2007   March 2007   April 2007   May 2007   June 2007   July 2007   August 2007   September 2007   October 2007   November 2007   December 2007   January 2008   February 2008   March 2008   April 2008   May 2008   June 2008   July 2008   August 2008   September 2008   October 2008   November 2008   December 2008   January 2009   February 2009   March 2009   April 2009   May 2009   June 2009   July 2009   August 2009   September 2009   October 2009   November 2009   December 2009   January 2010   February 2010   March 2010   April 2010   June 2010   July 2010   August 2010   September 2010   October 2010   November 2010   December 2010   January 2011   February 2011   March 2011   April 2011   May 2011   June 2011   July 2011   August 2011   September 2011   October 2011   November 2011   December 2011   January 2012   February 2012   March 2012   April 2012   May 2012   June 2012   July 2012   August 2012   September 2012   October 2012   November 2012   December 2012   January 2013   February 2013   March 2013   April 2013   May 2013   June 2013   July 2013   August 2013   September 2013   October 2013   March 2014  

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?