Author: Jane Austen
Genre: Fiction, Realism, The Novel
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
I. A Personal Preamble.
A few years ago, I decided to re-read Jane Austen's novels. I had first read Austen the summer after I finished high-school, right around the time I turned eighteen. But aside from some initial enthusiasm with Pride and Prejudice, my interest waned with Sense and Sensibility and positively dissipated with what I thought at the time was a fairly insuffrable work, Emma. I had remained ambivalent towards Austen since then, and never had any inclination to pick up her remaining work.
My interest in re-sampling Austen was sparked a while back by a discussion with an Austen enthusiast, and specifically regarding Emma which, with faded memory, I really couldn't countenance any more, even disdained. Her impassioned arguments in favour of this specific work led me to re-assess the author. I started with Pride and Prejudice, since I remember enjoying that book at least. I read her major novels in approximately the order she wrote them. Three were re-reads, and the other three I was picking up for the first time. After so many years, I've had a complete turn-around of opinion. I now admire and respect Austen. Specifically, what I appreciate is her perspicacity concerning human behaviour in the most quotidian of interactions, and her almost superhuman ability to subtly delineate the hypocrisies between outward manner and inner character, much of it through a masterful application of irony. I now even admire Emma, and love the vibrant (such a change in my perception of the character!) Emma Woodhouse with all her what I would now consider endearing faults. I prefer Austen's three later works: Emma, Mansfield Park, and especially Persuasion. These works are far more accomplished and subtle compared to what one might call her juvenile endeavours.
When I think of Austen at her peak, then I think of Emma and Mansfield Park for the exhibition of her powers through gentle mockery, and the subtle application of irony over a wide cast of characters belonging to the landed gentry of the author's set. But it's Persuasion that I love most. Although, I suspect it would not be as meaningful without first experiencing Austen’s earlier work. Her three later novels are worlds apart from the almost childish exuberance of, say, Northanger Abbey. And Persuasion is again different from the rest because it does something new after having given the impression that one knows what to expect from an Austen novel. I'm very glad I read it last, and it has remained the most re-visited.
II. Strength in Self-restraint.
It must be said first that Persuasion is a very modern novel. Austen wrote most of her works during the war with Bonaparte. And how serendipitous that the very year which signalled his defeat and marked, in hindsight, the beginning of the modern political era is the very year in which Austen started her new and final voyage of discovery. Austen's previous works chart out life in country manors amidst the aesthetic and attitudes of Georgian-era England, all of which showcase a rather stable social order of landed properties and systems of inheritences. This is a novel that deals with changing attitudes and stresses the value of newly-risen professional classes more so than the gentleman's country house traditions. The most sympathetic and valued characters in the novel belong to the navy, all of whom are transients by nature. Even most of the significant scenes take place in rented rooms rather than stately homes. It's a novel that seems to anticipate relocation as potential way of life.
Persuasion is also a novel of strangulated passion. Anne Elliot at twenty-eight is at the end of her marriageable prospects, has lost her youthful bloom, and has silently suffered regret for nearly a decade. It's almost wholly-narrated through Austen's regular omniscient perspective and contains very little dialogue. A short work compared to her other novels aside from the silly Gothic parody that is Northanger Abbey, it contains no comedic elements, and is by far and away the most intimate work of her entire output. While the heroine's story ends well as in all of Austen’s novels, Persuasion is not particularly romantic in the common, more modern usage of the term. Although, the work is infused with certain elements of romanticism such as the ubiquitous presence of Nature cloaked in her autumnal attire.
The work is a slow and measured re-kindling of hope, and where the heroine, through wisdom acquired with years of self-denial, self-restraint and keen, rational observation, is finally able to achieve a long-delayed happiness. Anne is the ideal woman; Austen even referred to her in letters as much too perfect to emulate. She finely balances sensibility with judicious and rational self-awareness, even moderating an almost wild happiness shortly after the climax of the novel so as to think things through with steadfast calm. Any uncontrollable emotion, even happiness, is an undesirable trait without a thoughtful mind tempering and placing it within its proper context through self-reflection. This really is the most finely drawn of all of Austen’s novels in terms of charting out a single character's state of mind, and one which, according to the critic Harold Bloom, approaches the intensity and style of character portrayals that Virgina Woolf regularly presented a century later.
Perhaps one reason for this is that most characters for large sections of the narrative are generally good people with honest hearts. Her previous works contain a number of truly foolish, hypocritical and selfish individuals, which makes analysing their temperaments and concomitant actions or behaviour springing from such deficiencies relatively easy. So much harder, and requiring greater finesse, to take essentially good people and still clearly, very sharply, expose their inadequacies without compromising on their more generous attributes. And Austen does this skilfully, with her delineation of temper, mind and manners being as astute as ever, although not quite reaching the heights attained in Mansfield Park.
Not to say that there aren’t unsympathetic characters in the work. Mostly Anne’s own family, but they are so beyond the pale as to almost trespass into caricature. They certainly serve their purpose, a major portion of which is to have made Anne’s existence miserable for most of her years through ill treatment, i.e. familial neglect, and a condescension that often metamorphoses into outright disrespect. They, and others, bathe in the nostalgia of ye goode olde days of peerage and find contempt in the ancestor-less individuals of the rising classes. As the title signifies, the major theme of this novel is the power of persuasion, and the potential consequences of being unduly persuadable. Anne has been a victim of such persuasion by family and friends in the past to her regret. It is this regret that lends the narrative a mood of pensive introspection. And because a number of elements bestow the novel a melancholy air, the wonderfully poetic climax is all the more affecting. What makes the novel even more poignant is that Austen wrote Persuasion whilst suffering ill health. She eventually passed away shortly after its completion, and was unable to re-draft the work and add dialogue as was her wont.
But the dearth of revisions and dialogue makes little difference to this deep character sketch. Anne Elliot is a fine heroine; her wisdom and acute self-reflection speak volumes. Other Austen characters are also highly observant and sagacious in their study of human behaviour, most noticeably the wonderful Elinor in Sense and Sensibility, and 'Fanny' in Mansfield Park. Fanny is an oddity for being abnormally superhuman in her discernment given her youth. What makes Anne special is the emotional maturity stemming from her later stage in life compared to other of Austen's heroines, her natural intellect, and a deeper wisdom acquired through mental hardship which has made her mind and temper formidably centred. At the same time, she retains her soft, caring and good disposition, not having succumbed to bitterness over the years.
It's a curious feeling to read an Austen work that starts off some ten years past where her other novels might have ended. A maturer sequel to Sense and Sensibility perhaps. Part of this appealing maturity, and another factor in emphasising the novel's modernity, is in the recognition of coming to terms with the past in the form of leave-taking. Without such an acknowledgement of the past, there can be no forward movement. This attitude ties into Anne's self-reflection and is reinforced aesthetically by the descriptions of the season in which much of the story is set. It's also supported by Anne's full acceptance of her changed and continually changing circumstance, the move away from traditional stability to new social vistas. This new direction necessarily cuts away the wounds and regrets of the past, and offers an unexpected boon, a new flowering of opportunity. The mood and tone of Persuasion makes one think of a melancholy yet wise Autumn, where the changing colours highlight new beauty even past spring's vibrant bloom.