Monday, August 9, 2010

Persuasion, Chapters 1-6

Jane Austen's final novel, Persuasion, is the only one of her books that I couldn't have told you a darn thing about going into it. I may not have known anything about Mansfield Park or Northanger Abbey, but I at least knew Fanny Price's name, and that Northanger was a take on the contemporary Gothic genre. But Persuasion? Zip. Then I posted the schedule of readings for this month and got this:

So while I know nothing about this novel, it happens to be two people's favorite Austen book. My curiosity was piqued.

The novel begins with Sir Walter Elliot of Kellynch Hall making a record of his family. His wife died 14 years ago, and of his grown daughters, Elizabeth, Anne, and Mary, only Mary is married, to Charles Musgrove. Elliot’s fortune will be passed to his nephew, William Elliot. Sir Walter has become self-absorbed in the years since his wife’s death, so Lady Russell, a friend of Lady Elliot, has stepped in to offer the Elliot girls some guidance. She takes a special liking to Anne. Elizabeth Elliot is beautiful but vapid and her father’s favorite, Anne is a lovely person but her family doesn’t pay much attention to her, and Mary is self-important, thanks to being the youngest sister and the only one who is married.

A few years back, everyone had hoped that William would marry Elizabeth, but he chose to marry another woman. Compounding the family problems is that Sir Walter is low on funds, having lived beyond his means for years. He calls in Lady Russell and Mr. Shepard, a lawyer, to come fix his situation.

They tell him that he has to “retrench” -- save money and get out of debt -- in order to save his reputation. He refuses to cut back on expenses, instead opting to leave Kellynch Hall and rent it out. They decide to go to Bath, despite Anne’s dislike for the city. Lady Russell supports this plan, since  it’ll save money, but also because it’ll break up Elizabeth’s friendship with Mrs. Clay, Mr. Shepard’s widowed daughter and bad egg.

Mr. Shepard says that the Navy will be returning home, since England is at peace, and suggests that a sailor would make a great tenant for Kellynch. The family discusses the Navy, and after Anne says that everyone should be indebted to their service, but Sir Walter says the Navy brings “persons of obscure birth into undue distinction" and weathers their appearance beyond their years.

Admiral Croft is interested in renting Kellynch, and they learn that his wife’s brother, Mr. Wentworth, is a curate nearby. This sets Anne aflutter when she realizes that her old love may soon be standing where she is. Her old love is Captain Frederick Wentworth, Mrs. Croft’s other brother. Years ago, they fell in love and wished to marry, but Anne’s family and Lady Russell told her it was a bad idea, since he didn’t have a fortune or high birth. Anne, believing that her elders had her best interests at heart, ended the relationship. He left the country and Anne has regretted it for seven years. She hasn’t fallen for anyone else in this time, though Charles Musgrove, who later married Mary, proposed to her.

The Crofts and Elliots hit it off, and the Crofts decide to take the place. Sir Walter and Elizabeth take Mrs. Clay with them to Bath, which angers Anne and Lady Russell. They worry that she’ll form an improper attachment to Sir Walter.

Mary writes to say that she’s unwell, and asks Anne to come stay with her at Uppercross Cottage. Anne’s glad to avoid Bath for a while, and heads to her hypochondriac sister. Mary’s in-laws live nearby and while they aren’t educated or elegant, they’re friendly -- Anne finds them a welcome change from her family.

Anne and Mary go to visit the Crofts, and they find them to be lovely people. Anne learns that Captain Wentworth will soon be visiting them. This upsets Mrs. Musgrove, who is reminded of her troubled son Dick, who served under Captain Wentworth until his death.

Once again, unsuitable parents are the cause of much turmoil for their daughters. Sir Walter’s inability to manage his money has broken up his family, for the time being, and diminished his and his daughter’s reputation. He’s the complete opposite of Anne, his practical daughter, and has passed his undesirable qualities onto his other daughters.

As a heroine, Anne is a little different from the others we’ve seen. For starters, she’s older (27), and she’s loved and lost, unlike the other heroines, who realize/meet the man they love during the course of the novel. The passage in which she’s mulling over her failed relationship is devastating and so true, that you have to believe that Austen has also loved and lost:
She was persuaded to believe the engagement a wrong thing -- indiscreet, improper, hardly capable of success, and not deserving it… More than seven years were gone since this little history of sorrowful interest had reached its close; and time had softened down much, perhaps nearly all of peculiar attachment to him, but she had been too dependant on time alone: no aid had been given in change of place, (except in one visit to Bath soon after the rupture), or in any novelty or enlargement of society. No one had ever come within the Kellynch circle, who could bear a comparison with Frederick Wentworth, as he stood in her memory.
It’s easy to imagine a contemporary Anne Elliot sitting at her computer, following Frederick’s actions on Facebook and stewing over her giant mistake. Austen has given us something timeless and great.


  1. this is my next Austen but one (Emma first!) and the only one I'll be reading for the first time. I envy you reading it without knowing the story (from films etc.), wish I could read it that way!

  2. I think what I love most about this book is the balance of Anne. She is quiet and compliant and self-effacing, but never contemptible, not cowardly. She is the kind of character, perhaps, that Austen was reaching for when she wrote Fanny Price, but written with nuance and grace and, you know, granted the right to a backbone even in silence. This is unquestionable Austen's most mature love story, and I think the one closest to her own experiences, which makes its melancholy extremely affecting, but also heightens the sweetness of its happy ending