Sunday, October 11, 2009

Austen's Persuasion is passable

Back in February I made the somewhat belated new year’s resolution that by the time 2010 rolls around I will have finished reading all six of Austen’s novels. To be perfectly frank, this decision was prompted in large part by a delightfully adorable film called The Jane Austen Book Club, which convinced me, among other things, that having read all six of them was either an essential part of my female education or, at the very least, a worthwhile endeavor. It actually wasn’t that daunting of an undertaking, as I’d already read half of them and only had three more to go. Unfortunately the first of the remaining three that I read rather put me off the whole idea. Let’s just say that Mansfield Park won’t be making my top ten list. The arrival of fall, however, has reminded me of my resolution, and that I have only a few months in which to read the final two. And so I cranked through Persuasion last month, and was quite pleased to find it much more enjoyable than MP. If I had to describe the novel in as many words as its title is long, that one word would be “pleasant”. Definitely not as brilliant or hilarious as Emma, nor as dramatic or sweeping as Pride and Prejudice, but overall a very enjoyable story expressed with all the piercing clarity and wit that generally characterize Austen’s novels.

Persuasion features Anne Elliot, the daughter of a noble family who, despite her rank and wealth, has never married despite reaching the lofty age of twenty-seven. Her immediate family are a rather proud and foolish lot who don’t really know how to value Anne’s modesty and good sense. In fact, the only person who really estimates Anne’s true worth is her good friend Lady Russell, an acquaintance of her late mother. The story begins when Anne’s father, who has exceeded his rather generous income, deigns to rent out their estate to another family while her removes himself to Bath. Anne is quite shocked to learn that their new tenants are the relations of a certain individual with whom she was once very intimately acquainted. They were engaged to be married many years ago, but she had broken it off at the disapproval of her family and the advice of Lady Russell, who strongly disapproved. The man, a naval officer named Wentworth, felt wronged and betrayed and cut off all contact with Anne, seemingly forever. Now that circumstances have brought them together again after ten years’ separation, Anne must go through the painful exercise of facing a man who has risen to success and made his fortune while she herself has shrunk to the relative social obscurity of an unhappily unmarried woman, and of enduring the cold politeness of the resentful man she once rejected but never truly stopped loving.

A large part of my enjoyment of this novel stemmed the fact that Austen does an excellent job of building
the emotional suspense leading up to the reunion of Anne and Captain Wentworth, and of maintaining it all throughout their painfully awkward subsequent encounters. It’s all the more agonizing to think of them both suffering such strong feelings while maintaining the front (to themselves and to the general company, ignorant of their history) of indifference and disinterest. That two people who were once so silly-in-love should now be reunited only to be perpetually estranged! It’s all very dramatic and heart wrenching, of course. And of course there’s also a happy ending, as with all Austen’s novels, and Anne and Wentworth do finally come to understand one another once again, having both grown into somewhat wiser and more mature individuals than they were when they first knew each other. Yet stories like these usually hinge less on the destination of marital bliss than on the course of the journey that leades there, and Persuasion is no different.

What I liked about this book was that both of the main characters have healthy flaws to grapple with before they can achieve their happily-ever-after. Perhaps Anne is a little bit on the long-suffering side, but to nowhere near the ridiculous degree of the frustratingly saintly Fanny Price, for example. I like that by the end of the book both Anne and Wentworth come to realize that if they’d been a little less foolish (she more discerning and he more forgiving and understanding) then would probably have spared themselves years of unhappiness. My one complaint about the novel is that I think it was hampered by the lack of any real communication between the two main characters for almost the entire duration of the story. I guess I felt that their estrangement was drawn out too long and then resolved a tad too quickly. Still, I enjoyed this book. I rooted for its characters. I had fun reading it. It definitely wasn’t my favorite Austen novel (so far), but it was still pretty good. Serviceable.

Oh, and since I forgot to work a quote in there somewhere, I’ll just awkwardly tack one on to the end of this review, kay? So here’s Anne pondering the potential pitfalls of poetry (alliteration totally not intended):
It was the misfortune of poetry to be seldom safely enjoyed by those who enjoyed it completely; and that the strong feelings which alone could estimate it truly, were the very feelings which ought to taste it but sparingly.
Whatever Austen may be writing, the gal certainly has a way with words, doesn’t she?

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