I read Persuasion by Jane Austen as a teenager, and I must admit nothing stayed from that lecture. I was aware of the film versions of Persuasion (I'm especially fond of the Ciaran Hinds version), so when the first Unputdownables readalong of the year suggested this book, I was favourably inclined to read it - this time as an adult.
The story, a classic girl meets boy, girl loses boy, girl meets boy again and, after some trouble, they all live happily in the end, was sufficiently dusted with social criticism and well developped second characters, as to avoid being just another romantic work of literature...
First of all, I appreciated a heroine being "out of bloom" (that's 27 for you!). Austen acknowledges that there are people in society who will not fall in love, marry and live in peace by the time they're 18. There are missed opportunities and there are regrets that will leave people stranded, moving on in life as respectfully as possible.
Anne Elliot is such a case. Persuaded of the unsuitability of her suitor, she's left to her memories, rejecting all future tries to matrimony (one will even go on to marry her sister, how modern is that?). Anne is the perfect wallflower. She’s the go-to person in times of difficulty but even she regards herself as silent and pensive and out of love and laughter. She's doomed to live with her older sister and her father, a duo that is so vain, it was simply hilarious to read. With mirrors everywhere in the house, with the sole piece of literature the book of baronetcy, and with strict beliefs as to who is "entitled by birth" to be worthy of their acquaintance, it's no surprise they live above their means, and are thus forced to rent out their house, while they retire to Bath (to avoid any scandal with regard to their financials...)
Austen spares nothing when she describes Sir Walter, Anne's father. He's the epitome of arrogance, who will never understand the ridicule of his situation... Austen also takes some very risqué measures to showcase the shallowness of the upper class: when we read how the Musgroves
“had the ill fortune of a very troublesome, hopeless son; and the good fortune to lose him before he reached his 20th year”– such a (nowadays) politically incorrect statement, yet I felt it was essential to get us in the spirit of that society in the novel.
As luck would have it, the new tenants, the Crofts, are related to Captain Wentworth, Anne's first suitor. It's thus inevitable that they will meet again, alas not in pleasant circumstances. The Captain is now rich and wants to settle down, looking for any woman between the ages of 15 and 30 (phew, Anne is still in the run!). But worry not, there are a series of events happening, an accident ensues, odd couples are formed and Captain Wentworth remains unengaged...
Back in Bath then, where we encounter a problem: Sir Walter is concerned with the appearance of the people:
“The worst of Bath was the number of its plain women…. I had counted 87 women go by, without there being a tolebrable face among them”.I admire Austen for the manner with which she introduces such absurd thoughts (that I am sure were were by good society…). In Bath we also get to meet Mr. Elliot, the estate's heir (remember, girls could not inherit?). There is a clear preference towards Anne and plans to form a powerful couple - both her father and her aunt look forward to the union. We are soon informed, however, of his true character via Anne's friend,“a mere Mrs. Smith, an every-day Mrs. Smith”. One of the more likeable characters in the book, she's a lady of the world, who, while rendered handicapped has not lost her flair for the little pleasures in life – gossip! How a statement goes through several people to finally reach Mrs. Smith for Anne to hear and become totally disillusioned with Mr. Elliot – pure delight to read!
For all the romance flowing through the pages, I’m glad Austen also includes some spots of rational thinking… Anne and Frederick will form a great couple, but not because they’re on seventh heaven, but because they know the dangers and challenges they will face together – this is what will make them stand the test of time.
When I first started reading the Classics, Austen was too romantic for me. But, this being the second of her novels I read as an adult, I must admit there is more substance to her work than I thought. Already in Lady Susan I had discerned some quality, and here as well I’m pleasantly suprised with Austen's social commentary. I look forward to reading more of her work...
Also read for Back to the Classics challenge