For those who have never ventured further than Pride and Prejudice, the central heroine is Anne Elliot, middle daughter to the insufferably vain Sir Walter Elliot, a spendthrift baronet with spiralling debts. At the age of nineteen, Anne received a proposal from up-and-coming naval officer Frederick Wentworth. Anne joyfully accepted but received nothing but disdain from her father and elder sister, and then her surrogate-mother-figure Lady Russell took it upon herself to persuade her to break it off. Anne was too young, Wentworth’s prospects too uncertain, their acquaintance too short. Sure that she was doing the best thing for them both, Anne ends the engagement and Wentworth goes back to sea in a fit of pique. Eight years on, Anne’s charms have faded and she has never forgotten Wentworth. But what’s this – guess who’s back in the area …
There are a host of wonderful characters in Persuasion; Anne’s ghastly father, her Mean Girl elder sister Elizabeth, her hypochondriac younger sister Mary, Mary’s in-laws the Musgroves and my own personal favourites, Admiral and Mrs Croft. Forced to let out their home to the Crofts due to Sir Walter’s debts, Sir Walter and Elizabeth decamp to Bath with their ‘great friend’ Mrs Clay and Anne goes to her sister Mary. Before ever I read this, I watched the 1995 BBC production, starring Amanda Root and Ciaran Hinds, and more than any other book, I do find myself picturing that cast when I read it. It is one of my very favourite television adaptations (whisper it very softly – I actually prefer it to the Colin Firth Pride and Prejudice series); the casting is spot-on, Austen’s words gain new life and Amanda Root pulls a blinder in the way she blossoms from bedraggled spinster-in-training to a woman regaining her confidence and with it her beauty. It is as close to perfect as a film can get.
Persuasion was Austen’s final novel – she never even got round to giving a title before her death and there is evidence that she would have called it The Elliots had she lived. It was her brother Henry with the possible assistance of her sister Cassandra who named the novel and published it alongside Northanger Abbey. It does have a more grown-up feel than Pride and Prejudice or Sense and Sensibility. When she receives Darcy’s letter of explanation, Elizabeth remarks inwardly that until that moment, she never knew herself. The same is not true of Anne Elliot – she has had eight years of quiet reflection, of sitting at home and being ignored by her father and ghastly elder sister Elizabeth, Anne knows herself very well. Elizabeth may worry that there are few people in this world and fewer still of whom she thinks well, but Anne has grace for her foolish sister Mary and patience for the Musgroves’ chatter. More hurtful is the way in the thoughtless contempt which her father and sister send her way – but yet, their foolish pride is everywhere undermined by the knowing eyes of the world.
It has been observed before that the admiration shown the navy in Persuasion is in penance for the unflattering portrait of that profession served up in Mansfield Park which showed the Price family in great disarray. Yet still, a broader point is being made about the class system. Austen explains to the reader that Mr and Mrs Musgrove are of the ‘old way’ while their daughters and son are of the new generation and so have a new way of doing things. Henrietta and Louisa have their harp, they dance, they have had education beyond what their parents had. Sir Walter Elliot is also of the old way; obsessed with the Baronetage and his own lineage, he is so inward-looking that he covers his walls with looking glasses to better admire himself.
One of my favourite observations in Persuasion however comes when Anne considers the benefit of objectivity which spending time with the Musgroves allows her. After weeks in Kellynch fretting over what the world will think of them if they retrench, Anne is able to see how little ‘the world’ (eg. Uppercross Hall) really cares. As Austen points out, people generally spend far more time fretting over the opinions of others than those ‘others’ ever spend thinking about them – her particular turn of phrase is quite beautiful, ‘the art of knowing our own nothingness beyond our own circle’. We see the claustrophobia of Sir Walter’s world as Anne dreads the un-ending circle of mindless parties with the Dalrymples who have neither wit, conversation or manners and Austen exposes the upper-class breeding as being a kind of Emperor’s New Clothes, of worth to nobody. Lady Russell makes herself ridiculous in pretending to have observed the curtains rather than acknowledge Captain Wentworth. When letting out Kellynch to the Crofts, Sir Walter will boast of having Admiral Croft as his tenant far more than said Admiral will ever think of who his landlord is. Indeed, the comparison is made when Admiral Croft does away with as many of Sir Walter’s mirrors as possible (or at least all the ones he can lift), since he gets along quite well enough with his ‘old shaving glass’. The message is clear – the navy in general and Admiral Croft in particular only looks inwards when absolutely necessary, they have better things to do.
Sir Walter is horrified by the navy, since it brings people of inferior birth into undue prominence and plays havoc with a man’s looks. His lawyer, desperate to get Kellynch Hall let, remonstrates that all professions have a price to be paid on one’s appearance, unless like Sir Walter, one is fortunate enough to need to follow no profession. Of course, not even Sir Walter is in this happy situation since he has spent his way into financial oblivion. We know that Anne is sensible since unlike her father, she believes fervently that the man who has gathered the debt ought to be the one who pays it off, while Elizabeth and Sir Walter feel that they have a right (nay, a duty) to live in a certain style. Even by the end of the novel, Elizabeth cannot bring herself to invite Mary and her family to dinner, since they will notice that the Elliot style of living is somewhat diminished.
The domestic set-up of the Navy offers a sharp contrast. Captain and Mrs Harville have a home so small that Austen observes that only those who ‘invite from the heart’ would ever open it up to outsiders. Despite their comparative poverty, they are offended to hear that Wentworth had not automatically assumed that any friends of his would of course be welcome to dinner. After Louisa Musgrove’s accident, they make it clear that she can stay in their home as long as needed and Mrs Harville nurses her personally. The other naval family, the Crofts, also display a generousity of spirit and feeling, with Mrs Croft only ever feeling unwell during a voyage on an occasion when she was separated from her husband. Wentworth, Mrs Croft’s brother, remarks impatiently that while the Admiral is a fine seaman, he is rather useless on land and Anne watches in amusement as the Admiral takes the reins when they are out driving, but his wife catches hold of them at various key moments to ensure that they are not landed in a ditch – this is clearly a metaphor for their general way of living.
Admiral and Mrs Croft are two of Austen’s warmest characters. The Admiral is so uxorious that he finds it difficult to keep any woman’s name straight in his mind other than that of his wife Sophy I particularly love the scene when he walks down the street with Anne after she catches him squinting at a print of a ship which he derides as either poorly made or poorly drawn. He is forever hoping that young people (e.g. Frederick) will get married quickly, that everything dawdles too much in peace time, although his wife seems to take a warier eye, particularly when her brother seems to be drawn towards the Musgrove girls. Given that Mrs Croft has already made a favourite of Anne, one imagines happy family gatherings once the novel draws to a close. Through these characters, we see all that domestic harmony should be.
It is hard not to think that Austen is writing with experience of personal disappointments, particularly during one of Anne’s final speeches with Captain Harville when she explains that it is harder for women to get over a broken heart than a man because they have less with which to occupy and distract them. Although Anne admits that the writing of men has centred on the inconstancy of women, she points out that now ‘the pen is in our hands’ – surely a true cri-de-coeur from the author herself. I have never felt the need to push the notion of a real-life love affair in order to make Jane Austen interesting, but she would hardly have been human if a man had never caught her eye.
In the background to Persuasion, the Musgroves are pondering how best to advise their daughters who are on the point of matrimony, and Mrs Musgrove and Mrs Croft agree in conversation that it is better for two young people to struggle in poverty for a few years of their early marriage rather than suffer the horror of a long engagement. Jane Austen herself was called upon by her favourite niece Fanny Knight to provide wisdom on who Fanny ought to marry and echoed these sentiments. Indeed, even the opening pages of the novel warn of the evils of an imprudent marriage, since Anne’s mother, the late Lady Elliot had been a very sensible woman aside from one serious lapse in allowing herself to be married to Sir Walter in the first place. All of Austen’s novels feature marriages but in this one, one feels as though they are being examined with a more mature eye – one with the wisdom of the detached observer.
Still, there are some snide and even bitter observations that jar uncomfortably with our established view of what to expect from Jane Austen. Mrs Musgrove, despite being a kindly woman who has clear affection for Anne, is ridiculed for her grieving affection for her dead wastrel son ‘poor Richard’ who Austen (or is it Anne?) curtly describes as having in life being nothing more than ‘Dick Musgrove’ whose death at sea was lamented by few. Much has been done for him by his family, who posthumously remember only his imaginary redeeming qualities and are anxious to meet Captain Wentworth who they realise was commanding officer to ‘poor Richard’ for a short time. Austen writes with the impatience of the woman who has never had a child as she stands in disdain over the fat and snivelling Mrs Musgrove who is graciously comforted by Wentworth, playing along with the idea of Dick Musgrove having been more than he was. I was reminded by the short story in Dancing with Mr Darcy which saw Austen condemned in the afterlife for how she treated the middle-aged women of her fiction but she is never crueller than she was here.
This is a sharp contrast to over-arching compassion and sensitivity which the novel shows to all those forced to live with disappointed affection. Even Captain Benwick, who has been living with his grief for less than a year, is given grace for falling in love with Louisa Musgrove because he ‘has a loving heart. He must love someone.’ It feels like wish-fulfillment that Anne and Wentworth are able to overcome the odds and find their way back to each other, forgive all wrongs and disappointments, and go forward together in love. And love is what is at stake here – Anne chooses against the superficial civility of William Elliot despite his superior breeding since all he is looking for is for the status of being baronet. Frederick Wentworth has no lineage other than himself and yet Anne knows that his family is better than hers, cares not that he is wealthier than her but does feel shame that she has no kind relatives or friends to bring into the union. Perhaps indeed Austen was only cruel about the late Dick Musgrove to show how kind Wentworth truly was, that the Captain would sit down and condole the foolish mother of a foolish boy who was never any use as a midshipman simply because it was the right thing to do.
Like Pride and Prejudice, an ill-turned phrase is carried beyond its intended source when Mary reports to Anne that Wentworth had thought her so altered after eight years that he would not have known her again. Yet while Elizabeth took great umbrage against Darcy for this and indeed one feels that her animousity largely stemmed from wounded pride, Anne is more circumspect. Her reward for this comes when Frederick confesses his love for her once more, remarking that for him, she could never be altered. The forgiveness between is so perfect that Anne does not need to crow over him his original opinion, but rather rejoice that this is now the truth. I would always argue that Austen is not a romantic novelist, but rather a satirist but with Persuasion one feels one has found her gentlest work and that like her heroine Anne Elliot, Austen ‘learned romance as she grew older’ so that we have this, her most romantic novel and her very sweetest pair of lovers. I would pick Wentworth over Darcy any day of the week.
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Published by Penguin Classics on June 28th 2011
Genres: Austen, Classics, Fiction, General, Literary, Love & Romance
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