Book review: Persuasion by Jane Austen

The premise of Persuasion was a refreshing change of pace from the others I’ve read recently, which featured painfully naive teenage girls experiencing their first brush of love and flirtation.

The protagonist here, Anne Elliot, is twenty-seven (! That seems shockingly spinsterly, in Austen’s world, but there’s another unmarried sister older by three years), and she first fell in love eight years previous to a Frederick Wentworth. But her snobbish father (a baronet) and their friend Lady Russell deemed Frederick too poor and unworthy of her, and so Anne is dissuaded from accepting him. Frederick goes off to become a glorious and successful naval captain, and then re-enters their lives at the present time.

Anne is the most sensible and mature of all Austen’s heroines I’ve encountered so far, exceeding even Elizabeth Bennett with the benefit of her extra years. Instead of a ridiculous mother, she has a ridiculous father, ridiculous elder sister, and a fretful younger sister. Also, there’s a new type of character: a family friend and widow, Mrs. Clay. She’s seen as a sly woman, conniving to marry Anne’s father and threatening the family’s good standing in society. Unlike other character portrayals, I don’t know if Austen intended that view as satirical, or if she truly was an embarrassment and unwise association for them. Anne, certainly, was mortified to have her around.

The plot isn’t too remarkable; it’s all about Anne and and Frederick slowly renewing their acquaintance, with enough conversations taken place around each other to confirm that their feelings remain unchanged, and then the renewed proposal happily accepted.

One part near the end that surprised me is when Anne tells Frederick that, after consideration, she thinks she was right to initially reject him:

“I must believe that I was right, much as I suffered from it, that I was perfectly right in being guided by the friend whom you will love better than you do now. To me, she was in the place of a parent. …But I mean that I was right in submitting to her, and that if I had done otherwise, I should have suffered more in continuing the engagement than I did even in giving it up, because I should have suffered in my conscience. I have now, as far as such a sentiment is allowable in human nature, nothing to reproach myself with; and if I mistake not, a strong sense of duty is no bad part of a woman’s portion.”

WELL, that does not mesh well with today’s notions of womanhood and independence. Maybe if she’d said instead that due to her age — nineteen, at Frederick’s first proposal — she was justified in accepting her father and mentor’s wishes over her own, that would be more acceptable. But I can’t agree with that notion of “a strong sense of duty is no bad part of a woman’s portion,” no.

At least there were no scenes where she applied to them for permission this time, though.

Another weird thing is when Frederick confesses that he almost married one of Anne’s sisters-in-law, Louisa, just because he’d been friendly to her and paid her more attention than the other women in the party for a few weeks, and that had led everyone to believe he must be engaged to her — and he felt it would be dishonorable to back away or explain the mistake?

“To a degree, I could contradict this instantly; but when I began to reflect that others might have felt the same — her own family, nay, perhaps herself — I was no longer at my own disposal. I was hers in honor if she wished it. …I had been grossly wrong, and must abide the consequences.”

Jeez, that’s a bad reason to marry someone. “Well, everyone thought I loved her, it seemed awkward to contradict them. I’m sure we’ll make the best of it for the rest of our lives.”

I did appreciate a note of feminism, though, in the key climactic conversation about how men and women differ in their constancy of love. The man to whom Anne is talking tries to use all of literature to back him up in claiming women’s ingrained fickleness, but he is too much of a gentleman not to realize the error:

“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.”

Otherwise, like in Austen’s other novels, there’s a sharp critique of society snobbishness. One of the most aggravating quotes for me was delivered by Anne’s father, criticizing the Royal Navy:

“I have two strong grounds of objection to it. First, as being the means of bringing persons of obscure birth into undue distinction, and raising men to honors which their fathers and grandfathers never dreamt of; and, secondly, as it cuts up a man’s youth and vigor most horribly: a sailor grows old sooner than any other man; I have observed it all my life. A man is in greater danger in the navy of being insulted by the rise of one whose father his father might have disdained to speak to, and of becoming prematurely an object of disgust himself, than in any other line.”

The second complaint is just a reflection of the silliness of Sir Elliot’s vanity, but wow, that first one is galling. The idea that personal character and accomplishments count for nothing, and respect should be solely granted by one’s birth… If that’s a remotely accurate picture of England at Austen’s time, the original appeal of America is much clearer to me now.

Also, the complaints made against another woman, who married Anne’s cousin William, were equally horrible, even though they were made by a more sympathetic character than the father:

“Money, money, was all that he wanted. Her father was a grazier, her grandfather had been a butcher; but that was all nothing. She was a fine woman, had had a decent education, was brought forward by some cousins, thrown by chance into Mr. Elliott’s company, and fell in love with him; and not a difficulty or a scruple was there on his side, with respect to her birth.”

I suppose “fine woman” refers more to her beauty than her character, but the judgment there, that her father’s and grandfather’s professions outweighed all the rest of herself — augh, so infuriating.

I’m learning from Wikipedia that Jane Austen’s own brothers became admirals in the navy, so sailors have a soft spot with her — not a surprise, then, that the final lines of this book (her last complete one) end on a reflection of that life:

She gloried in being a sailor’s wife, but she must pay the tax of quick alarm for belonging to that profession which is, if possible, more distinguished in its domestic virtues than in its national importance.

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