I think I need to reread Persuasion. The mood you are in and the time and care you dedicate to the process of reading can all have an impact on how you perceive a novel, and for whatever reason I was hugely disappointed with Persuasion, Austen’s last completed work, which I am sure says more about me than it does about this novel. But on this reading alone I’d go so far as to say the incomplete and hurried nature of the conclusion, and the short length of the work (around half the length of Pride and Prejudice, for example) is evidence of it being a late draft completed in the final months of her life (it was published after she died) which had she lived would have seen the extensive revision that was the hallmark of her methods of composition for earlier works.
Austen is unquestionably a writer of genius, her control of point of view and narrative technique is unparalleled, and not least critics love Persuasion, which all suggests the problem may have been with me, not the novel, and that I need to give it another chance.
The plot of Persuasion treads familiar romantic ground – young people in Regency England trying to find suitable partners to marry, but it has something of a new twist. Persuasion is about love the second time around. Anne Elliot, middle daughter of Sir Walter Elliot, baronet, lives in the shadow of her older sister Elizabeth, now in effect head of the household following their mother’s death, and Mary, her younger sister who has recently married a local minor aristocrat, Charles Musgrove. Charles had previously asked Anne to be his wife, and once rejected had moved on to the younger sister with that relentlessness and lack of sentimentality that characterised marriage making in this period. Anne is now 27, dangerously old for a woman of this era and at risk of spinsterhood. What is not widely known about Anne (within the novel) is that when she was 19 she had previously rejected an earlier marriage proposal, having been persuaded by her mother’s friend and her own confidante, the widow Lady Russell, that her suitor, Frederick Wentworth, was not good enough for her. Captain Wentworth, as he now is, was at the time without prospects or connections, and marrying for love was an improvident thing to do.
Wentworth re-enters Anne’s life when Sir Walter lets the family estate to Wentworth’s brother-in-law, Admiral Croft. Since their initial romance, Wentworth has fought in the Napoleonic Wars, been promoted to the rank of captain and amassed a significant fortune from capturing enemy ships – being in the Navy could at this time be a very dangerous but very well-rewarded profession. Once Wentworth is reintroduced it is clear he and Anne will end up together, but the only question is how they will be reunited, and which of the many available young women introduced into the plot he will mistakenly be thought to be in love with before the inevitable reconciliation. Visits to Lyme Regis and Bath feature along the way, where the plot’s false starts and red herrings are overcome and the multiple other threads quickly resolved, more in the manner of an early Shakespearean comedy than an elegantly plotted Austen romance.
There is an obvious temptation to see Austen using Anne’s story as a way of working through her own personal issues. Austen had been engaged at one point but hurriedly called it off, and it is possible she regretted choices made in her romantic life. For her there were to be no second chances, so writing a story in which a lost love is finally recaptured must have had at least some element of wish-fulfilment. Austen’s biographer Claire Tomalin described Persuasion as Austen’s “present to herself…. to all women who had lost their chance in life and would never enjoy a second spring.” I don’t find this way of looking at novels as semi-autobiography or therapy as particularly fruitful – Jane isn’t Anne any more than she is Elizabeth or Fanny.
So what are the concerns I have about the novel? It is clear from her correspondence that Austen wrote Persuasion during the illness which was to take her life. Her usual method of composition, working and reworking the text and plot, was simply not available to her – she didn’t have the time or the energy, and it shows. Plotlines are hurriedly disposed of without the usual care – the most obvious example being the way Mr William Elliot, Sir Walter’s heir, is introduced, courts Anne, and is exposed as a scoundrel. This Mr Elliot is a two-dimensional villain whose motivation is simply to ensure he inherits the ancestral home, which is due to do anyway, even without all the Machiavellian plotting. His precise role in the family structure – why he is the heir – is never clearly explained (unless I missed it!) and the way his deviousness and duplicity is exposed is clumsy in the extreme.
As a character, Anne is not as dull as Mansfield Park‘s Fanny Price, but she equally doesn’t come alive compared to an Elizabeth Bennet or Elinor Dashwood. At first she is described by the unsympathetic narrator as ‘faded and thin‘, as ‘haggard‘, and that ‘her bloom has vanished early‘. Captain Wentworth on his return to her company passes a similar devastating judgment, commenting (in a phrase Anne crushingly comes to hear) on ‘the years which had destroyed her youth and bloom‘. However, things aren’t as bad as these judgments might suggest, and some restorative sea air puts colour back into her cheeks. After a short while at Lyme (albeit in November) Anne is attracting the attentions of the passing William Elliott:
“As the passed, Anne’s face caught his eye, and he looked at her with a degree of earnest admiration, which she could not be insensible of. She was looking remarkably well; her very regular, very pretty features, having the bloom and freshness of youth restored by the fine wind which had been blowing on her complexion, and by the animation of eye which it had also produced. It was evident that the gentleman … admired her exceedingly.” (Chapter 12) (Sir Walter on the other had thinks ‘sharp winds‘ can make a women ‘grow coarse’, and on that basis decides not to buy his youngest daughter a new hat and pelisse in case it encourages her to go out in the wind!)
The chapters in Lyme and Bath had the feel of the characters treading water waiting for the reconciliation between Anne and Captain Wentworth. When this reconciliation finally happens it feels rushed – he overhears her speaking with a friend of his, and writes her a letter declaring his feelings, which she happily reciprocates. This was the one scene Austen is known to have re-written. The earlier version survives, in which Wentworth’s sister and brother-in-law take a much more active hand in engineering the couple’s reconciliation, which to me seemed a lot more believable and authentic.
Many of the other characters don’t step off the page. Anne’s younger sister Mary is better sketched than many, and while her hypochondria is a character trait Austen had used before, (with Mr Wodehouse) this is largely forgotten once the novel moves on. Elizabeth the older sister is barely two-dimensional and remains wooden and forgettable. Lady Russell, who advises Anne not to accept Wentworth’s original proposal, is equally and disappointingly weakly drawn. In fact none of the secondary characters are comparable to the wonderful sketches you see in earlier novels of characters such as endearing gossips such as Miss Bates, awful aristocrats like Lady Catherine de Bourgh or villains like Willoughby. Equally the plotting is disappointing. In the great Austen novels we are always aware of events ‘off-stage’, even when the central characters themselves are unaware. There are plenty of hints that there is more to Jane Fairfax and Frank Churchill’s relationship than Emma is aware of with a careful or second reading, and the way Austen charts Elizabeth Bennet’s journey from anger to love with Mr Darcy is utterly convincing, but there is nothing of comparable significance in Persuasion.
Or at least I didn’t find it on this read, which as I have said could easily be down to my reading of the novel rather than the novel itself. So I need to reread it. Of course I am not going to dive into it straight away, but find a time and place when I can give it the care it needs. Until then I would love to know whether you shared my concerns or can point me to where I have gone wrong.