Tuesday, October 28, 2008

The Complete (and Unabridged) Jane Austen: Persuasion

"She had been forced into prudence in her youth; she learned romance as she grew older: the natural sequel of an unnatural beginning."

In her final complete novel, Jane Austen takes a different tone with her writing. Focusing on the constancy and endurance of a mature love rather than the hopes and joys of youth, Persuasion is perhaps Austen's most romantic work. But as with all of her works, Austen also manages to penetrate the standards of the British class system and to firmly establish her belief that rank and wealth do not determine the goodness of a person.

The Plot:

Eight years before the novel begins, Anne Elliot became engaged to the handsome and ambitious Capt. Frederick Wentworth. But because of his lack of fortune and uncertain connections, Anne was persuaded to break off the engagement by her friend and mentor, Lady Russell, and Capt. Wentworth returned to sea to escape his heartache. As the novel opens, we find Anne an old maid at 27. She has "lost her bloom" and is living at home as the overlooked middle child of Sir Walter Elliot, a man consumed with his looks and his title. Sir Walter's expensive tastes force him to lease his estate and remove his family to Bath. Anne remains behind for awhile at Uppercross Hall with her married younger sister Mary and her family.

Capt. Wentworth enters Anne's life again when his sister and brother-in-law (Admiral and Mrs. Croft) lease the Elliot estate. He is now exceedingly rich due to his success in the Napoleonic Wars and, like many Navy men, is looking to settle down. His cool treatment of Anne makes it very obvious that he still resents her, and he begins to pay more and more attention to Mary's young and impetuous sister-in-law, Louisa Musgrove. When tragedy strikes, Capt. Wentworth is reminded of Anne's strength and character, and Anne discovers that she is not the only one whose love has remained constant.

My Review (Caution-Spoilers):

Persuasion stands out from the rest of Austen's for many reasons. At 27, Anne Elliot is the oldest of the Austen heroines and the only one to be considered an old maid. Anne's maturity is reflected in the overall tone of the novel, which is "autumn-like" as opposed to the "summer-like" tones of her other novels. This is seen again in the writing style of the novel, for though it still has the wit and irony of all of Austen's works, it is softer and less polished than the others.

The main question that Austen seeks to answer in this novel is "Is persuasion good or bad?", or should one be easily persuaded or not? As with Sense and Sensibility, the answer lies somewhere in the middle. Anne was persuaded to give up her engagement not only by Lady Russell's advice, but by the fear of the uncertainty of Capt. Wentworth's future as well. Anne soon realizes her mistake: "She was persuaded that under every disadvantage of disapprobation at home,and every anxiety attending his profession, all their probable fears, delays, and disappointments, she should yet have been a happier woman in maintaining the engagement, than she had been in the sacrifice of it...". By the end of the novel, Anne has learned to trust in her own good sense as well as the power of a constant love. After the end of his engagement, Capt. Wentworth began to hate what he saw as Anne's lack of conviction. This leads to his admiration of Louisa Musgrove, whose firm resolve and determination make her the polar opposite of Anne in his eyes. But after Louisa's accident on the Cobb at Lyme (caused solely by her own willfulness), Capt. Wentworth sees the foolishness of this kind of thinking.
"'Don't talk of it, don't talk of it," he cried. "Oh God! that I had not given way to her at the fatal moment! Had I done as I ought! But so eager and so resolute! Dear, sweet Louisa!'" Anne wondered whether it ever occurred to him now, to question the justness of his own previous opinion as to the universal felicity and advantage of firmness of character; and whether it might not strike him that, like all other qualities of the mind, it should have its proportions and limits. She thought it could scarcely escape him to feel that a persuadable temper might sometimes be as much in favour of happiness as a very resolute character."
Another other issue that Austen tackles is the use of rank to determine people's worth in society. The two different ways of thinking are found in this exchange between Anne and her cousin (and admirer) William Elliot:

"My idea of good company, Mr Elliot, is the company of clever, well-informed people, who have a great deal of conversation; that is what I call good company." "You are mistaken," said he gently, "that is not good company; that is the best. Good company requires only birth, education, and manners, and with regard to education is not very nice. Birth and good manners are essential; but a little learning is by no means a dangerous thing in good company; on the contrary, it will do very well."

Anne's opinion is, of course, Austen's opinion. Though the British class system of the time would have made Sir Walter Elliot of more consequence than Admiral and Mrs. Croft, it is obvious whose character is the best:

"Vanity was the beginning and the end of Sir Walter Elliot's character; vanity of person and of situation. He had been remarkably handsome in his youth; and, at fifty-four, was still a very fine man. Few women could think more of their personal appearance than he did, nor could the valet of any new made lord be more delighted with the place he held in society. He considered the blessing of beauty as inferior only to the blessing of a baronetcy; and the Sir Walter Elliot, who united these gifts, was the constant object of his warmest respect and devotion."

"This meeting of the two parties proved highly satisfactory, and decided the whole business at once. Each lady was previously well disposed for an agreement, and saw nothing, therefore, but good manners in the other; and with regard to the gentlemen, there was such an hearty good humour, such an open, trusting liberality on the Admiral's side, as could not but influence Sir Walter, who had besides been flattered into his very best and most polished behaviour by Mr Shepherd's assurances of his being known, by report,to the Admiral, as a model
of good breeding."

Austen also tries to denounce the idea of women as helpless, finicky creatures as they were so commonly portrayed in the literature of the time.
"But I hate to hear you talking so like a fine gentleman,and as if women were all fine ladies, instead of rational creatures. We none of us expect to be in smooth water all our days."

"'If I had such a memory as Benwick, I could bring you fifty quotations in a moment on my side the argument, and I do not think I ever opened a book in my life which had not something to say upon woman's inconstancy. Songs and proverbs, all talk of woman's fickleness. But perhaps you will say, these were all written by men." "'Perhaps I shall. Yes, yes, if you please, no reference to examples in books. Men have had every advantage of us in telling their own story. Education has been theirs in so much higher a degree; the pen has been in their hands. I will not allow books to prove anything.'"

And finally, as I said before, the mature love portrayed in Persuasion makes it, in my opinion, the most romantic of the Austen novels. The steadfast devotion of the Crofts (who are my favorite of all of Austen's married couples) is so heartwarming and inspires some of the best passages in the novel:
"The only time I ever really suffered in body or mind, the only time that I ever fancied myself unwell, or had any ideas of danger, was the winter that I passed by myself at Deal, when the Admiral (Captain Croft then) was in the North Seas. I lived in perpetual fright at that time, and had all manner of imaginary complaints from not knowing what to do with myself,or when I should hear from him next; but as long as we could be together, nothing ever ailed me, and I never met with the smallest inconvenience."
The letter writing scene in Chapter 23 is also wonderful. You can just feel the tension in the room when Anne says to Capt. Harville "All the privilege I claim for my own sex (it is not a very enviable one;you need not covet it), is that of loving longest, when existence or when hope is gone.".

Persuasion is definitely the most emotional of Austen's works. Its maturity, romance and insight all make it an absolutely wonderful read, and if there were no Pride and Prejudice, this would be my favorite Austen novel by far. I'll leave you now with what is perhaps the most romantic letter/proposal in all of English literature, written by Capt. Frederick Wentworth.
I can listen no longer in silence. I must speak to you by such means as are within my reach. You pierce my soul. I am half agony, half hope. Tell me not that I am too late, that such precious feelings are gone for ever. I offer myself to you again with a heart even more your own than when you almost broke it, eight years and a half ago. Dare not say that man forgets sooner than woman, that his love has an earlier death. I have loved none but you. Unjust I may have been, weak and resentful I have been,but never inconstant. You alone have brought me to Bath. For you alone, I think and plan. Have you not seen this? Can you fail to have understood my wishes? I had not waited even these ten days, could I have read your feelings, as I think you must have penetrated mine. I can hardly write. I am every instant hearing something which overpowers me. You sink your voice, but I can distinguish the tones of that voice when they would be lost on others. Too good, too excellent creature! You do us justice, indeed. You do believe that there is true attachment and constancy among men. Believe it to be most fervent, most undeviating, in
F. W.
I must go, uncertain of my fate; but I shall return hither, or follow your party, as soon as possible. A word, a look, will be enough to decide whether I enter your father's house this evening or never."
The Movie:

Two early versions of Persuasion were done in 1960 and 1971. No opinion to give.

In 1995, it was released in theaters starring Amanda Root and Ciaran Hinds. This is a wonderful adaptation that catches the true spirit of the novel. In my opinion, this definitely ranks as one of the best Austen adaptations out there. A must see!!

Finally, there was the recent Masterpiece production which I have reviewed here. Though it was VERY pleasing to the eye (**cough**rupertpenry-jonesascaptainwentworth**cough**), it was just too rushed to be a good adaptation. As I said in my review, the acting was good but the script was atrocious. Don't bother.

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