Jane Austen: Persuasion (1818)

Persuasion

After having read Mansfield Park and liking it so much (as you can see here) I decided to read Persuasion, which has been mentioned by so many in the comments as their favorite Jane Austen novel. The two books couldn’t be more different. I found Persuasion much more mature, more subtle, less witty, more elegant and a bit melancholic. It’s a perfect novel, there is nothing superfluous in it; the story and the characters are rounded and the way their emotions are shown is believable and very touching. There is a lot of sadness and heartache in this novel, but, since it’s an Austen novel, the good characters are rewarded. Despite of all of this, I’m not sure I prefer it to Pride and Prejudice or Mansfield Park. The earlier novels have some imperfections, but they also show an exuberance and wit, which I enjoy. From the point of view of the love story, I think Persuasion is my favourite and I like Anne Elliot and Captain Wentworth as much or even more as Elizabeth Bennet and Mr Darcy, but I missed some of the irony and playfulness of the earlier novels. On the other hand Persuasion is very subtle and I love the more urban settings, Lyme Regis and Bath, which add to its appeal.

Anne Elliot is one of three sisters who lost their mother at an early age and grew up with a silly and vain father who, on top of that, is a spendthrift. The most important things to him and his eldest daughter, Elizabeth, who is his female counterpart, are looks and titles. Being a baronet is of the utmost importance to him. The gentle and sensible Anne suffers a great deal through their coldness and superficiality and if it wasn’t for her mother’s old friend Lady Russell, who has become her mentor, she’d be bad off in a family of self-centred, pompous fools. Her younger sister Mary is not much better and at that a hypochondriac. When the novel starts the Elliots are forced to leave Kellynch Hall and find cheaper lodgings in Bath because Sir Elliot and Elizabeth have been spending far too much. The estate will be let to Admiral Croft and his wife. Mrs Croft is the sister of Captain Wentworth, the man Anne Elliot once loved and – persuaded by Lady Russell – refused to marry because he had no money and no status yet.

Eight years later Captain Wentworth is still as handsome and likable as he used to be, but he’s also very rich. Anne who has refused every suitor, soon regrets bitterly that she refused him. Captain Wentworth on his side is still hurt and resentful. He hasn’t forgotten Anne but cannot forgive her.

Persuasion is often called a “novel of second chances”, and that’s what the love story is all about, but Austen novels are always about much more than just love and marriage. Money and the criticism of a superficial society which attached too much worth to it are central themes. In Persuasion we find a similar situation as in Pride and Prejudice: a rich man with no male heir. The way this is handled is central to the society and the times in which Jane Austen lived but, thankfully, so different from now. Should Sir Elliot die, the estate would go to a distant male relative and not to one of his daughters. It seems as if the property was tied to the name only and not so much to the family. Someone who may never even have seen a house, may be living in it, while those who spent there all their lives have to move out.This is so incomprehensible for us, feels so incredibly unjust that whole series, like Downton Abbey, illustrating this practice, are sure to generate our interest.

A large part of the second story line in Persuasion focusses on this aspect. There is an heir, but he is proud and arrogant, and it is very painful for everyone to imagine he will be living in Kellynch Hall. However, since Sir Elliot is still a good-looking man, it’s not impossible that he remarries. If a younger wife would give birth to a son, the whole situation would look entirely different. While the love story is central the “hunt” for the estate and the ensuing complications are no less important.

I’ve read all of Jane Austen’s longer novels now and it’s quite fascinating to look back, to compare, find similarities, spot differences. I’m currently reading Claire Tomalin’s Jane Austen biography and it adds another layer. So much that is mentioned in Tomalin’s book can be found in the novels. I noticed that Jane Austen never describes London, but I didn’t know she’d never been there.

Nowadays I tend to jump from one author to the next, but it has a special appeal to read everything of one writer because the books are always linked and when you’ve read them all, you can see, that despite the differences, the individual books together form a whole. In Jane Austen’s case, reading all of her books, showed all of her novels are full of vivid portraits and character sketches, full of well-observed behaviour and show the many facets of romantic attachment. But while there are similarities in the themes, there is a huge difference in mood.

On Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility and Why I Love Marianne

sense-and-sensibility

At the beginning of December I was in the mood to read a lot of classics and that’s why I decided to participate in Advent with Austen. I didn’t manage to read or watch anything else that is Austen related apart from Sense and Sensibility  (1811). Today is the last day of the readalong. If you would like to read more enthusiastic takes on the book it might be good to visit Reading, fuelled by Tea.

What about my impression of Sense and Sensibilty? Boy, this was painful. Babushka-like reading. You know, the little doll inside of the little doll, inside of the little doll… Every time I peeled off a layer of pages, the book got magically longer and longer.

I suffered especially all through the first 100 pages. Yes, there were many witty sentences but all in all it was about money, marriages and talk, talk, talk. We could watch a bunch of nasty, fairly rich and scheming characters trying to kill time, marry right, secure their income and avoid at all times introspection and spending time on their own.

But then Marianne fell in love and started to suffer so terribly when Willoughby left for London, that I couldn’t help but being interested.

In many of the comments and posts I read, people state they like Elinor but not Marianne. Why? I think Elinor is a likable character but I love Marianne. She is the only truly honest person in this phony world and that’s why she falls so violently ill. She knows that there is a fine line between politeness and hypocrisy and her body reacts strongly to all the rules and laws of this society.

Some of the scenes in this novel made me cringe. I cannot picture myself in them. At 17, like Marianne, I would have fallen stupidly in love and ill as well. Nowadays, as a saner version of myself, I would just smash a few windows and ruffle whole bagloads of feathers.

Gossip and small-talk, insipid conversations and endless games is the essence of how the society in this book spends its time. People have to be glued to each other constantly. They can’t bear to be on their own. Although they are constantly around each other, they hardly ever connect. The only person who openly disregards this, is Marianne. She is often perceived as impolite, yet all she is, is honest.

I really liked her more and more. Whenever they arrive at a new place, she doesn’t participate in the tedious chit-chat that is soon to follow but walks off, looking for the library.

Elinor, however little concerned in it, joined in their discourse, and Marianne, who had the knack of finding her way in every house to the library, however it might be avoided by the family, soon procured herself a book.

Pretending and lying gives her headaches and she retires to her rooms. Realizing that she has been betrayed by Willoughby affects her so deeply, there is no more behaving or pretending, on the very contrary, she litterally screams, cries and gets very ill.

Despite her psychosomatic ailments after Willoughby’s departure and his breaking up with her, the most critical illness is still to come.

After she hears what Elinor had to endure without being able to talk about it, she is so shocked about having been so self-centered that she develops some late reaction and falls even more seriously ill.

Reading his I was amazed how audacious this really is and how modern but then comes the final part and Jane Austen spoils it. When Marianne has recovered and speaks about her illness, all she sees in it is an experience that helped her better herself, make her more fit for society. It’s not surprising then, that Jane Austen marries the tamed Marianne to the man she thought so ridiculous at the beginning of the novel.

I really didn’t like the book as a whole but Marianne will from now on be one of my favourite heroines of all time and I would have wished for another ending.

As I wrote earlier, the book is witty. Language has always a prominet place in Jane Austen’s novels. The differences between Marianne and Elinor are never as eloquent as when they speak about things they like. This is one of my favourite quotes and one that made me like Marianne even more:

“Dear, dear Norland, ” said Elinor, “probably looks much as it always does at this time of the year. The woods and walks thickly covered with dead leaves.”

“Oh!” cried Marianne, ” with what transporting sensations have I formerly seen them fall! How have I delighted, as I walked to see them driven in the showers about me by the wind! What feelings have they, the season, the air altogether inspired! Now there is no one to regard them. They are seen only as a nuisance, swept hastily off, and driven, as much as possible from the sight.”

“It is not every one, ” said Elinor, ” who has your passion for dead leaves.”

This was my fourth Jane Austen novel and it was the only one I didn’t like. So far Pride and Prejudice is still my favourite. But I haven’t read Persuasion yet. I have a feeling I will like it.

How about you, do you like Sense and Sensibility and Jane Austen in general? Do you have a favourite novel?

And what about the movies? I have seen Sense and Sensibility and liked the movie well enough although I thought Emma Thompson was far too old as Elinor. I liked the BBC version of Pride and Prejudice but I liked the film with Keira Knightley even better. Yesterday I discovered that I have a TV version of Mansfield Park on one of my DVD shelves.