Somehow–and I don’t really know how–I went all the way through a BA in English without being assigned any Jane Austen. I’ve been trying to rectify that gap in my reading history, first with Pride and Prejudice and then Sense and Sensibility. I picked up S&S because it was the most familiar title after P&P, and I did like it well enough though I wasn’t enamored. Then several more Austen-familiar friends told me I had to read Persuasion–so I recently gave it a go.
Persuasion came in for me somewhere in between, not as good as Pride and Prejudice but better than Sense and Sensibility. I learned my lesson from S&S and watched a movie version (1995) first, to help me get some grounding on who all the characters were. This may have slanted my impressions somewhat, although mostly I think it was helpful. Austen employs a large cast of characters related to each other in complicated ways, and it helped coming into it with some idea of how everyone fit together.
I had a little trouble with Austen’s language–some of her sentences are extraordinarily convoluted, so that I had to go back to the beginning and try again to follow their thread. Like I’ve found with other authors, though, the more I read the easier it gets, so this was mostly only a difficulty in the beginning of the book.
This is largely a character-driven story, making it a little hard to give a plot description. In a way, it’s a Cinderella story, about a Cinderella who mislaid her prince. When Anne Elliot was 19, she was engaged to Captain Wentworth, splendid in every way except for a lack of fortune. Lady Russell, a dear family friend, persuaded Anne to break off the match. Eight years later, Anne is still single, disregarded and a bit downtrodden by her horrid father and two sisters. You can even cast Lady Russell as the Fairy Godmother (if a slightly misguided one) who sees Anne’s value and wants to help her. Such is the situation when Captain Wentworth comes back into Anne’s life and social circle, and then the question becomes whether she still loves him and, even more in doubt, whether he still loves her.
That sounds fairly straight-forward, but there are subplot romances, a couple other suitors for Anne, and a lot of going about making social calls in one place or another.
I enjoyed the characters–Anne is a complex, sympathetic heroine. She’s under less societal threats than Elizabeth Bennett, whose whole family would collapse if the daughters didn’t marry well (or at least, her mother thought so). Anne has Lady Russell as her refuge, and maybe that’s just as well. Her desire to marry Captain Wentworth really seems to be about him, not societal pressures (which is not at all to criticize Lizzie’s attachment to Mr. Darcy, just observing context!)
And while I don’t want to give too much away–let’s just say that there is a final romantic conclusion, as seems to be usual in Austen, and she actually gave us more dialogue for a change! Instead of narration along the lines of “and he expressed himself on the occasion as sensibly and as warmly as a man violently in love can be supposed to do” (which has me wishing to know what Mr. Darcy said), we actually get a quite beautiful declaration-of-love letter, and some real talking. Probably still less than most authors would have done (sigh) but more than seems to be Austen’s norm.
One thing that struck me in this book was the question of servants. I came to this book directly after watching Downton Abbey, which shows the life upstairs and the life downstairs with equal care and interest (and my favorite character is Anna, the head housemaid). Persuasion is strictly the life upstairs.
Anne’s father is a baron of some sort. He’s fallen on financially difficult times, but he is still determined to keep up the proper status. He must have servants. Anne’s snobbish elder sister cannot possibly be cooking or cleaning or probably even doing her own hair. But servants aren’t mentioned at all! They’re not even walk-on characters. Finally halfway through the book, that snob sister decides not to hold a dinner party in Bath, because they have less servants at their lodgings than they used to have at their manor house, and that would be embarrassing.
Coming right off of Downton Abbey, I wondered a great deal about these completely disregarded people who really must be there but aren’t noticed by anyone. It almost feels like a modern book where you wouldn’t bother to mention that a character has a refrigerator. Of course they have one. Of course Austen’s characters have servants. Why say more about them?
That was my own particular quirky reaction to the novel. On the whole, I did enjoy it, and it was nice to meet another cast of Austen characters–once I worked out who was who!