Dec 16, 2011

Persuasion by Jane Austen

Persuasion by Jane Austen

Persuasion tells the story of Anne Elliot, who at the ripe old age of twenty-seven remains unmarried and lives with her snobbish and indebted father and sister, Sir Walter and Elizabeth Elliot. Eight years previously, Anne was to be married to one Captain Wentworth, but was persuaded by her friend Lady Russell to break off the engagement. Sir Walter’s debts force the family to move away from their home, Kellynch Hall, and to let it to Admiral Croft and his wife. Mrs Croft turns out to be Captain Wentworth’s sister, which means that he is about to return to Anne’s social circle. And Anne can’t deny that her feelings haven’t changed very much at all in the past eight years.

Persuasion is a subtle, subdued and character-oriented novel that takes readers by surprise. The plot is fairly simple, but the satire, the love story, and above all the characterisation are all extremely satisfying. Anne Elliot is perhaps an unlikely heroine, but that’s one of the reasons why I loved her. She’s sensible, considerate, patient and gentle, but also quite resolute in her own way. As Tasha so well put it, “the way Austen starts off the book, almost hiding Anne, and then bringing her slowly to the forefront of the story and revealing her relationship with Wentworth, was masterfully done.” Anne’s personality slowly comes into focus and earns both the reader’s and the other characters’ deep appreciation.

Anne’s choice eight years prior to the novel’s beginning was the result of persuasion or influence, and as the title indicates this is one of the novel’s major themes. I was very interested in the fact that despite Anne’s mistake, her having been persuaded does not come across as weakness—not at all. Austen is very much aware that anyone living in a complex social world will sometimes have to give in, meet others halfway, balance conflicting interests and needs, and if possible find a way to do all this while without smothering their own desires.

Anne Elliot is not a heroine who breaks off with society to follow her own path, and Persuasion is in a way a very conciliatory novel. Breaking off with society is of course sometimes a necessary choice, or even the only choice; but this is a course of action we romanticise, while simultaneously we tend to despise more appeasing heroines whose lives are revolutionary in far quieter and less obvious ways. Anne, who can be quite sharp, observes the following about the exaltation of immunity to influence:
Anne wondered whether it ever occurred to [Captain Wentworth] now, to question the justness of his own previous opinion as to the universal felicity and advantage of firmness of character; and whether it might not strike him that, like all other qualities of the mind, it should have its proportions and limits. She thought it could scarcely escape him to feel that a persuadable temper might sometimes be as much in favour of happiness as a very resolute character.
There isn’t enough appreciation for women like Anne; women who meet others halfway, who get what they want without giving up their social world, and who are nevertheless never portrayed as weak. Anne doesn’t want to go against society not because she lacks courage, but because she does value the opinion of people who matter to her, because if possible she wants to preserve these connections and find her way without giving up things that also matter to her.

Another thing I loved about Persuasion was its focus on female subjectivity and desire. At the centre of this novel is a woman (an older woman by Regency standards) who is deeply in love. The passion may be subtle, but it’s very much there. Every time I read Austen I’m reminded of what Virginia Woolf famously said about her – she is “a mistress of much deeper emotion than appears upon the surface. She stimulates us to supply what is not there.”

I also quite liked Anne’s conversation with Captain Harville towards the end of the novel, about men and women’s constancy in love. I was pleasantly surprised that Anne’s explanations for gender differences are all social – there’s no essentialism in what she says, only a keen awareness of the power of circumstances and how they mould people, as well as of women’s restricted roles and confined lives.

When it comes to social satire, Persuasion is full of tensions and pulls in opposite directions. On the one hand, Austen sharply denounces subservience to rank for its own sake – the scenes involving Sir Walter, Elizabeth, and Lady Dalrymple are absolutely hilarious. There is also an appreciation for Captain Wentworth’s success in making something of himself despite a modest birth. But on the other hand, as Alex pointed out Mrs Clay’s similar ambition is dealt with mercilessly. I’m sure a lot has been said about the interaction between gender and social mobility in Persuasion by people far more knowledgeable than I am. To put it briefly, I was interested in the fact that although the novel is steeped in limited class ideals, there are also little cracks that signal social change.

Advent with AustenToday is the 236th anniversary of Jane Austen’s birth; the date, along with the 200th anniversary of the publication of Sense and Sensibility, was one of the motivators for Advent with Austen. It’s still not too late to join us for the celebrations. You can do so by reading and reviewing something Austenesque or by joining the fourth and final Twitter movie night this Sunday.

On a side note, as I found out recently thanks to Susan the cover of the Penguin Deluxe edition of Persuasion is by Audrey Niffenagger, who also did Sense and Sensibility. Aren’t her covers amazing?

Memorable bits:
They had no conversation together, no intercourse but what the commonest civility required. Once so much to each other! Now nothing! There had been a time, when of all the large party now filling the drawing-room at Uppercross, they would have found it most difficult to cease to speak to one another. With the exception, perhaps, of Admiral and Mrs Croft, who seemed particularly attached and happy, (Anne could allow no other exceptions even among the married couples), there could have been no two hearts so open, no tastes so similar, no feelings so in unison, no countenances so beloved. Now they were as strangers; nay, worse than strangers, for they could never become acquainted. It was a perpetual estrangement.

When the evening was over, Anne could not but be amused at the idea of her coming to Lyme to preach patience and resignation to a young man whom she had never seen before; nor could she help fearing, on more serious reflection, that, like many other great moralists and preachers, she had been eloquent on a point in which her own conduct would ill bear examination.

Anne found Captain Benwick getting near her, as soon as they were all fairly in the street. Their conversation the preceding evening did not disincline him to seek her again; and they walked together some time, talking as before of Mr Scott and Lord Byron, and still as unable as before, and as unable as any other two readers, to think exactly alike of the merits of either, till something occasioned an almost general change amongst their party, and instead of Captain Benwick, she had Captain Harville by her side.

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.
They read it too (many thanks to Alex for letting me borrow her formatted link list): The Sleepless Reader, Fyrefly’s Book Blog, The Blue Stocking Society, Dot Scribbles, The Literate Mother, Jayne’s Books, The Literary Stew, Open Mind, Insert Book, A Guy’s Moleskin Notebook, Just Books, Rebecca Reads, All Consuming Books, Fashion Piranha, Presenting Lenore, Alita Reads, Worthwhile Books, Lesley’s Book Nook, The Book Pirate, Fingers and Prose, Desperate Reader, You’ve GOTTA Read This, Adventures in Reading, MariReads, Truth, Beauty, Freedom and Books, Stella Matutina, Lost in Books, Reading Reflections, My Random Acts of Reading, Stacy’s Books, The Literary Omnivore, Books. Lists. Life., Tony’s Reading List, A Striped Armchair, Lit Endeavors, Aneca’s World, Bookworm Nation, Shelf Love, Diary of an Eccentric, The Bookworm Chronicles

(Have I missed yours?)

Affiliates disclosure: if you buy a book through one of my affiliates links I will get 5%.

29 comments:

  1. WUHUUUUUU! You read Persuasion :D :D

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  2. Very good point (yours and Tasha's) about how gradually Anne enters the story - masterfully done! My bookclub read this one in October and two of members actually complained about it, how they were almost ready to give up because the main character wasn't around...

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  3. Loved your thoughtful review of my all-time favorite book. You've made me want to re-read it. My thoughts are here:

    http://diaryofaneccentric.wordpress.com/2010/10/13/review-persuasion-by-jane-austen/

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  4. Wonderful review, Nymeth! I read this last year (the year before? time flies...) and loved it. It does have a very slow and deceptive start, although by midway through, it's easy to see why. I love what you say about the art of persuasion in this novel; that sometimes giving in is necessary, even noble, and not a matter of weakness. Austen is so good at showing how all sorts of conclusions can fall out of one event met by different personalities.

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  5. I think Persuasion is my favourite Austen novel - the more I read it, the more I see in it. There is a wonderful BBC version with Amanda Root and Ciaran Hinds, too.

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  6. I actually think I've never read this one! Obviously I should remedy that...

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  7. "There isn’t enough appreciation for women like Anne; women who meet others halfway, who get what they want without giving up their social world, and who are nevertheless never portrayed as weak." Exactly! This is one of the things I love most about this book. I haven't read it since college, and I remember the class sort of dismissing her for this very reason.

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  8. I haven't read this book, but do have a great collection of Austen and should pick it up in the new year. I try to ration my Austen because I know there is no more coming out, but I do believe that it's quite time for another! Thanks for this great review!

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  9. I feel like I need to read Jane Austen. I could never get into her books before when I tried but it has been several years since I've tried and I feel we change a lot as people through the years. in any case, great review. ;)

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  10. I completely agree that we too often romanticize those who completely ostracize themselves in protest. It's nice to see some appreciation for those who understand the art of compromise. :)

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  11. I'm rather embarrassed about how few Austen books I've read. It sounds like she was very witty.

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  12. I love your review. This is my favorite Austen novel for so many of the reasons you mentioned.

    "Breaking off with society is of course sometimes a necessary choice, or even the only choice; but this is a course of action we romanticise, while simultaneously we tend to despise more appeasing heroines whose lives are revolutionary in far quieter and less obvious ways."

    You phrased that so perfectly. It's the same way I feel about Sense and Sensibility too. People can romanticize Marianne's actions while thinking Elinor is too cold. It's often much harder to keep your feelings in check to benefit others. I love that Austen can write both types of characters so beautifully. I'm so glad you love this one too!

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  13. Fantastic review. I thoroughly enjoyed Persuasion but it did take me a few pages to get into it. I didn't immediately fall in love with the characters but they grew on me and I found it a little weepy toward the end. In a good way of course. Maybe I'm just a softie for true love after all.

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  14. This is a beautiful review, Ana. Persuasion was my favorite of the Austen novels, I think, and I love your description of how Anne's character was developed. It takes skill and subtlety to portray quiet, less obvious kinds of courage.

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  15. Thank you for the linkage, Ana! I still like P&P better than Persuasion, but it's a much more thoughtful book than P&P is, too. Anne suppresses so much of her emotions and desires in the interest of getting along with family and friends--not that she has much of choice. I loved her, but I kept waiting for her to have a breakdown and it never happened. And I just really didn't like Wentworth, sorry. :P

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  16. You read Persuasion!! I think I must have told you a hundred times now that it is my favourite Austen, right? So glad you found so many things you liked in it. Loved your analysis, and Tasha's observation is very clever, I never thought of it that way.

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  17. I also read this book this year, and really enjoyed it:

    http://thebookwormchronicles.wordpress.com/2011/03/27/persuasion-jane-austen/

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  18. I haven't read any Austen this year ... will make it a priority for 2012! Niffenegger's covers are amazing.

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  19. I liked you review a lot. I'm very keen on "getting to know Anne" and also what you say about the emotions in Jane Austen ring so true. There is a lot of emotion but it's not as explicit.
    I'm reading Sense and Sensibility and hope to post next Friday. Persuasion will probably be the next Austen. I'm so curious whther I will still like Pride and Prejudice the most or whether it will be Persuasion.

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  20. I wanted to comment on the cover as well. It immediately caught my eye, very special indeed.

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  21. Persuasion is my favorite Austen book so far, and I admit I have more admiration for Anne Elliot than I have for the great Elisabeth Bennett.
    Amazing review, you're so right about how the main character slowly comes forward.

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  22. This one is on my list for next year, now I'm looking forward to it even more! And wow, that Audrey Niffenegger is talented, great cover!

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  23. I think another comment quoted this but when you said "Breaking off with society is of course sometimes a necessary choice, or even the only choice; but this is a course of action we romanticise, while simultaneously we tend to despise more appeasing heroines whose lives are revolutionary in far quieter and less obvious ways" it was such a great point.

    We do live in a complex world and never compromising, never giving a thought to your good relations and the good opinions of others can sometimes be just detrimental obstinancy. It doesn't mean one must suppress dreams and desires, but that it's admirable to seek a way to pursue a contented life for yourself that, if possible, is in harmony with the other people around you.

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  24. I have been wanting to read Persuasion for a long time. You have made me want to pick it up. Great review Nymeth.

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  25. I read this at a stressful time of life last year and I'm sorry to say that I didn't get the subtley. I was rather disappointed. I definitely need to reread it, and your post has encouraged me to do so sooner rather than later!

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  26. FINALLY! I love love love this book and am so glad that you appreciate Anne Elliot, too. She is wonderful and strong and this is one of the most romantic novels I have ever read.

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  27. Jodie: Finally, right? :P

    Alex: But the wait pays off! I thought it was a great strategy to use.

    Anna: Thanks for your link, and I'm so sorry I missed it!

    litlove: Yes, she really is brilliant at it!

    GeraniumCat: I actually watched that just a few days ago. Normally watching an adaptation soon after I finish a book ensures I'll nitpick and not like it, but in this case I had zero complaints.

    Jill: Yes you should! It's many people's favourite, and I can see why now.

    Priscilla: I can imagine how that would happen, but it makes me sad. I'm glad there are plenty of us who do appreciate her, though!

    Zibilee: I know just what you mean! It had been two years since my last Austen, for similar reasons.

    Amy: I hope you have more luck when you try again!

    Trisha: It makes me happy to see that there are so many Anne fans!

    Kathy: It's never too late to start!

    Melissa: Aw, thank you! I still haven't read S&S, but it will be my next.

    Amy: It's certainly a book that grows on you slowly, but like litlove was saying the slow start is justified by the end.

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  28. Beautiful review, Ana! I haven't read 'Persuasion' yet. I want to do a Jane Austen marathon one of these days :) I know something about the characters though, because of the movie 'The Jane Austen Book Club' that I saw sometime back. In the movie, a few people meet and discuss Jane Austen books every month. I remember their conversation on 'Persuasion' and Anne Elliot and Captain Wentworth. Have you seen this movie?

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  29. Well-written review, Ana! Thank you for including my review. :D P&P is still my fave but Persuasion was a close runner-up!

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Thank you so much for taking the time to comment - interaction is one of my favourite things about blogging and a huge part of what keeps me going.