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Book Review: Persuasion, by Jane Austen

The sailor she rejected when he was poor is now rich, and she's unmarried at 27.


Persuasion

Originally published in 1817, 236 pages. Available for free on Project Gutenberg.



Anne Elliot has grieved for seven years over the loss of her first love, Captain Frederick Wentworth. But events conspire to unravel the knots of deceit and misunderstanding in this beguiling and gently comic story of love and fidelity.




Seven years ago, Anne Elliot received an offer of marriage from a young man named Frederick Wentworth. Despite their being very much in love, Anne was persuaded against the marriage by Lady Russell, a family friend. Wentworth went off heartbroken and joined the navy.

Anne, at the highly perishable age of 27, is now facing imminent spinsterhood. Her sisters treat her like furniture, assuming that as an unmarried and probably never-to-be married woman, she has nothing better to do than watch their kids while they go off to parties. Her father, a vain, spendthrift snob, ignores her wise advice about cutting back on expenses, even though she's clearly the most sensible member of the family.

Then, Frederick Wentworth comes back as Captain Wentworth, a rich, eligible bachelor now being pursued by half the ladies in Bath.

Anne, of course, is still in love with F.W. F.W. is still in love with A.E. However will this story end?

This was Austen's final work, and many Austen fans cite it as their favorite. I cannot say it was mine. The story left few surprises; while of course there are the usual misunderstandings, false "entanglements," misapprehensions about who's in love with whom and who's going to get married, etc., these are all very obvious red herrings to the reader, as Austen practically spells out everyone's true motive from the beginning.

I did enjoy it - I always enjoy Austen. But Persuasion was lacking the thing that made Pride & Prejudice, Northanger Abbey, and Emma so delightful: humor.

That's not to say there was no humor at all (setting it above Mansfield Park). Austen is always witty, always expressing in her unique, flowery style sentiments that would be rude or biting if expressed more directly, and allowing her readers to be entertained by the things her characters think but would never say.


"Very good humoured, unaffected girls, indeed," said Mrs Croft, in a tone of calmer praise, such as made Anne suspect that her keener powers might not consider either of them as quite worthy of her brother; "and a very respectable family. One could not be connected with better people. My dear Admiral, that post! we shall certainly take that post."

But by coolly giving the reins a better direction herself they happily passed the danger; and by once afterwards judiciously putting out her hand they neither fell into a rut, nor ran foul of a dung-cart; and Anne, with some amusement at their style of driving, which she imagined no bad representation of the general guidance of their affairs, found herself safely deposited by them at the Cottage.


Anne Elliot's father, Sir Walter, is a perfectly silly man, amusing because he takes himself so very seriously.


Sir Walter Elliot, of Kellynch Hall, in Somersetshire, 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.


Persuasion

But the humor is still a bit thinner in this book. Sir Walter doesn't have any amusing lines, he just goes around sniffing at those beneath him, acting haughty without any self-awareness or responsibility. Anne's father and her sisters spend the latter half of the book kissing up to some distant noble cousins, the Dalrymples, who themselves are dull and uninteresting and only important because they've got blue blood. The Elliots make a ridiculous fuss name-dropping their connection.


Anne had never seen her father and sister before in contact with nobility, and she must acknowledge herself disappointed. She had hoped better things from their high ideas of their own situation in life, and was reduced to form a wish which she had never foreseen; a wish that they had more pride; for "our cousins Lady Dalrymple and Miss Carteret;" "our cousins, the Dalrymples," sounded in her ears all day long.


The foibles of Anne's family are somewhat amusing in an ironic way, and there are other quotable lines, but it's basically a story about one sensible, good-hearted woman in imminent danger of spinsterhood getting properly married despite her spendthrift father and superficial, self-centered sisters.

The themes of the novel are persuasion (when it's good to allow yourself to be persuaded by others, and when it's not) and fidelity, represented by the unwavering love that Anne and Captain Wentworth have for each other despite an absence of seven years. The "villains," of course, are never truly evil, they just want to marry for reasons other than selfless devotion.

Given Austen's own sad fate as an unmarried woman who died at 41, one cannot help suspecting a certain amount of self-identification with this heroine more than any other. Beneath the genteel, romantic comedy of manners, Austen as usual hints at what an unfunny fate it was to be an unmarried woman without her own fortune, and she shows her usual sympathy for her own sex, expressed with sly humor:


"But let me observe that all histories are against you--all stories, prose and verse. If I had such a memory as Benwick, I could bring you fifty quotations in a moment on my side the argument, and I do not think I ever opened a book in my life which had not something to say upon woman's inconstancy. Songs and proverbs, all talk of woman's fickleness. But perhaps you will say, these were all written by men."

"Perhaps I shall. Yes, yes, if you please, no reference to examples in books. Men have had every advantage of us in telling their own story. Education has been theirs in so much higher a degree; the pen has been in their hands. I will not allow books to prove anything."


Persuasion has all the usual Austen virtues - fine prose, wittiness, and sharp social criticism - and an assortment of characters just large enough to make for an interesting cast, with heroes and villains in the romance wars. But the simplicity of its plot and the missing humor element can't make this one my favorite.

Film Versions



Persuasion (1971)



Persuasion (1971)

This early BBC miniseries is lengthy at 3 hours and attempts fidelity to the novel, down to the dialog. It's a faithful adaptation and with better acting than many of the 70s BBC dramas. I do recommend people watch the old BBC versions even if they prefer the later adaptations; it's the best way to "see" Austen's novels as if they were plays.

Persuasion (1995)



Persuasion (1995)

With better production values and acting, this version is also faithful to Austen's novel, but takes more liberties in fleshing out the characters and their motivations; Anne is more emotive (eye rolls, pensive frowns) and has whispered conversations with friends and family that aren't in the novel but which clarify aspects of her relationships that substitute for the author's third-person omniscient voice in the novel.

Regency England is not quite the clean and starched stage production of the 1971 drama - here, the characters' outfits are (as far as I can tell) historically accurate, and it's easier to see what a pain it must have been for the servants to keep them clean. There is mud, dirt, dust, and the actors aren't prettified so much.

Also notably for this version, poor Anne, nearly an old maid at 27, is indeed quite plain, and like a woman who's on the verge of descending into crows' feet and wrinkles and knows it.

Jane Austen's Persuasion (2007)



Persuasion (2007)

The most recent BBC adaptation features many rainy scenes of Anne wistfully looking out windows or reading letters accompanied by a plinking piano and a mournful violin. The most abbreviated, it's also the prettiest - we're back to Regency England as a place of clean, scrubbed mansions and elegant gowns and uniforms unbesmirched by travel.

This version still follows Austen's plot fairly closely, but cuts a lot of detail and explains many of the finer points through character exposition that's much blunter than any of Austen's dialog.

Anne Elliot
Captain Wentworth
Wentworth and Elliot



Verdict: Not my favorite Austen, but not my least favorite either. Austen's prose is as flawless as usual, and Persuasion is finely plotted. It loses points for missing the humor and poignancy I found more abundantly in Austen's other novels. 7/10.

Also by Jane Austen: My reviews of Pride and Prejudice, Northanger Abbey, Mansfield Park, and Emma.




My complete list of book reviews.
Tags: books, books1001, jane austen, movies, netflix, reviews
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