Persuasion is Jane Austen’s last completed novel and, in my opinion, her best. Yes, Pride and Prejudice is light, bright and sparkling- with a host of characters that delight the reader but there’s something about Persuasion that sticks with you long after you’ve finished the last page and put the book back on the shelf…
The story of Anne Eliot, a heroine both ignored and adored in equal measure by the other characters, is one of a concealed passion and longing of a kind which, after many readings, I am not convinced Lizzy Bennett could understand. Anyone who has been victim to unrequited or even perhaps lost love must side with Anne over Lizzy. Anne loves though it causes her no joy and dares to hope though sense tells her she should step aside. In terms of who I’d rather be Anne wins every time, for her sheer guts and determination to weather what life throws at her.
Being Austen’s last completely formed heroine I often see echoes of the predecessors in Anne. She has some of Fanny, that timid mousy thing, and enough of Emma and Lizzy to make her a compelling protagonist. She is sure of herself and her interior emotions, even if she has no control over the outward machinations of daily life and rarely voices an opinion. Perhaps she benefits from the advantage of maturity. Both Emma and Lizzy at 20 do not have the sobering life experience of Anne at 27. Interestingly enough, however, when we are shown a glimpse of Anne in her youth she is just as sparkling as those two predecessors.
In Anne and Wentworth we see what happens when circumstances don’t contrive a happy ending the first time around. Although, if their first love story, unseen in the book, had not ended with estrangement, we would not have such a stunning novel of reconciliation and oh, is this novel’s reconciliation stunning!
There’s something about knowing the main characters are, or were, in love that makes the plot so much more powerful for me. When Wentworth and Anne are accidentally brought face to face for the first time in public it makes me catch my breath. Additionally, Anne’s longing to be where Wentworth is, even though it means watching as he begins to attach himself to Louisa Musgrove is made all the more powerful by Wentworth’s narrative silence.
As readers we see the whole of the action of Persuasion as it pertains to Anne, and her direct experience with it. Characters cease to exist when Anne is propelled out of their orbit into the circle of other acquaintance. So, we are never sure of Wentworth’s thoughts or feelings, except through glances, eavesdropping, and observation. Agonising pages are spent by Anne wondering how things are progressing with him, despairing when she hears nothing from any sources and yet trying to continue normal life without him.
The information received is always unreliable, a game of Chinese Whispers: does he look at Anne, or is it a trick of the light? Did he really mean what was overheard? The reader is as unsure of what will happen as Anne is herself, which makes it almost as nerve-wracking as if it were happening to you. Until Wentworth relents and begins to speak to Anne he is as much a stranger to her as if they had never met in the first place, something I find a fascinating trick of prose.
As this is Austen we’re talking about, there’s always more going on in the novel than simply edging heroine and hero towards a declaration of love and the inevitable happy ever after. The title itself hints at underlying themes of the novel that are far more complex. Persuasion is the aim of all rhetoric and yet, as the introduction to my edition kindly informs me, while it may be forgivable to be persuaded, it is morally ambiguous at best to be the persuader. The novel is preoccupied with this paradox, was Anne right to be persuaded not to marry Wentworth or was Lady Russell wrong to persuade her?
Inevitably there is far more to talk about than I can bring up here, unless you want me to write more?! In which case let me know! Instead of focusing on the plot points I’ve tried to give an overall feeling of the book.
Persuasion really is worth a read, I promise you’ll find so much more in it than I have the power to convey now.
So I hope you do!
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