Persuasion is the last full-length novel Jane Austen wrote so our time with her is drawing to an end. Don’t be sad. I’ll come up with a new theme or series of books to cover! I’ve never professed to have a favorite Austen novel because, honestly, how could anyone choose? They each offer something to indulge the imagination, and on reading Persuasion for the umpteenth time, I am reminded of how much I love the resolution for Anne Elliot and Captain Wentworth. It got to a point that I was smiling like a fool in Starbucks tonight when I read the letter he wrote to her. If I can make it through this review without giggling like a schoolgirl whose teacher just said they were going to be let out half a day early on the last day of school because the air conditioner was broken and everyone was smothered under oppressive heat and humidity, then I’ll be very pleased with myself. I’ll consider it an achievement of massive proportions and buy myself something as a reward.
*Warning* This is going to be quite the lengthy review.
Anne Elliot, the oldest, maybe the least classically pretty too, Austen heroine graces this short novel with as much wit as Elizabeth or Emma (though clouded by propriety) and feeling as Catherine, Marianne, and Fanny (but voluntarily suppressed). At the ripe old age of twenty-seven, Anne has lost the bloom that marks a woman of marriageable age and is considered an old-maid, or on the verge of the state that condemns a woman to judgment and maybe even ridicule by society. In a family that favors flattery, rank, and money, it is no surprise that she, “with an elegance of mind and sweetness of character [. . .] was nobody with either father or sister [. . .] – she was only Anne.” (Who wouldn’t want to be “only Anne” when Rupert Penry-Jones is Captain Wentworth?) When reading Persuasion, there is no question as to how Anne feels. While the narrator occasionally lets us into other characters’ feelings, “for [her] alone, [the narrative] thinks and moves,” to use Captain Wentworth’s beautiful words. Because of that, I’ve never felt so in-tune with a character of Austen’s.
She does not express her emotions nearly as often or openly as Elizabeth, definitely not Emma, but neither does she confine them to smolder like Fanny. Perhaps it stems from her being twenty-seven and more mature in the ways of the world and more knowledgeable of herself, but she discerns her emotions quickly and deals with them accordingly so as to remain as composed as she possibly can. How does she do it? She seeks quiet, shelter, reposing in the female interiority that is one of the only ways a woman can overcome overwhelming sensibility without judgment. We’re to understand from the start that she was once engaged to Captain Wentworth eight years earlier but broke it off on the advice of her mother-figure friend Lady Russell, although still harboring feelings for him that she cannot express. Upon hearing that his sister and her husband are to be the new tenants of Kellynch Hall, she leaves the room “to seek the comfort of cool air for her flushed cheeks,” walking (presumably alone) in a grove, and sighing “A few months more, and he, perhaps, may be walking here.”
Throughout the novel, she encounters situations that throw her emotions into haywire, and she desperately attempts to rein them in. And in most situations, she seeks the comfort of solitude as she did on first hearing of Captain Wentworth’s returning. For instance, when her nephew hangs all over her neck, unable to, or perhaps refusing to, hear her demands for him to get off her back, relief comes from an unexpected source—Captain Wentworth. Without a word, he comes up and removes the boy. And gosh golly does that throw her for a loop. The always sweet Anne who lives to please and alleviate worries can find no interest in “Charles Hayter’s feelings, nor anybody [else’s] [. . .] till she had a little better arranged her own.” This inability to be attentive when required ashamed her, of course, and “required a long application of solitude and reflection to recover.” I think we’ve all felt the need for solitude at some point or another to recover from something that forced our feelings to the extreme. I know I often prefer being left alone when someone annoys me. My mom has often told me that when I’m angry to walk away until I cool off. That got me in trouble with my grandpa once.
I have an entire page of references for Anne’s quest for solitude in order to compose her spirits, but I won’t trouble you with a recitation of all the incidents. We all have better things to do. Even so, I have to point out that while Anne composes herself in private, her emotions begin to take an even stronger hold to the effect that sometimes, she can’t. What happens when she can’t? Everything but Wentworth becomes an annoyance. All she cares about is him, and this is what happens: she, “in spite of all the various noises of the room, the almost ceaseless slam of the door, and ceaseless buzz of persons walking through, had distinguished every word” of his. It seems that both Anne and Wentworth can hear nothing but each other as he writes in his letter, “You sink your voice, but I can distinguish the tones of that voice when they would be lost on others.” They are each beginning to understand, again, the subtleties of the other’s countenance. They had once known the ins and outs of the other, but time, a break of an engagement, pride, injury, fear, regret, all of these and more combined to make them forget. As they start to remember, they begin to forget everyone else. It’s about time if you ask me.
I’m not sure when the exact change begins, or rather when Anne starts to act for herself and her happiness, but I have to say that there is a marked difference when she reaches Bath. She sees her father and sister, fallen from grace, not even remotely regretting the loss of their family’s land, and the fact that they now boast of having two drawing rooms when they had so much more at Kellynch. There’s a gross difference between their behavior and those of her relations-by-marriage at Uppercross. She sees it in full force at Bath and has been constantly growing stronger and stronger in her opposition to their ridiculous, old-fashioned beliefs. Low and behold, this all works up to her finally deciding to act instead of suppress those feelings for Captain Wentworth. In what I consider to be a scene of conscious defiance, she is “enabled to place herself much nearer the end of the bench than she had been before, much more within reach of a passer-by,” said passerby being, of course, Captain Wentworth. It’s a small gesture that involves only “a little scheming of her own,” but it’s enough. We see her moving towards Wentworth. In fact, she even gains strength from her father and sister’s coldness toward him, something that would have made her shrink from distinguishing him before. It’s safe to say our heroine has reached maturity, and our hero is her object. What any woman wants, she gets; in a fictional sense, seeing as how I sure don’t get everything I want.
My theory as to why I love their love story is that she is older, wiser, and already suffering from the-one-that-got-away when the novel begins. It’s hopeful. She’s not thrust another man to fall in love with, one better suited to her, but rather given the chance to learn from her mistakes and redeem herself. Her reward is the man she loves and has loved for eight and a half years. He has also learned and grown from the experience, and I believe that this lends itself to an even greater love than could possibly be imagined by Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy. If their love can last through acceptance and then rejection, years of separation, anger etc., what can’t it weather? I like that she’s older, which some believe a testament to Austen’s being older and unmarried. Most of all, though, it’s the hope that love really does conquer all. I’m a sucker for that sort of thing.
I did make it through without smiling giddily, mostly thanks to my not rereading the scene where she reads his letter, so I shall buy some chocolate. I never said it’d be a big reward.