Sunday, August 9, 2015

Persuasion by Jane Austen

Thanks to Adam over at The Roof Beam Reader for hosting this years Austen in August Reading event. Be sure to check out this post for lots of great posts on all things Jane Austen.

My commentary contains major spoilers.

Persuasion by Jane Austen is a revered classic that lives up to its reputation. The plot centers around Anne Elliot. The activities and interactions of Anne, her family and her friends make up the plot. The prospects for marriage of Anne, and other characters as well, drive much of the narrative.

Anne is in her late twenties and has not yet married. Years earlier, under pressure from her family and friends, Anne had broken off an engagement with Captain Frederick Wentworth. When Wentworth returns to the scene, the stage is set for much of the drama that comprises the book.

Like many great works, there is much to ponder here. One of the major sources of interest is the state of Anne’s personality and psyche. She is surrounded by people who undervalue her and who do not appreciate her virtues.  She is often used and put upon. Her father, Sir Walter Elliot, and sisters are narcissistic and often behaved childishly. Her one friend who seems to appreciate her, Lady Russell, had unfortunately given Anne some very bad romantic advice when she urged Anne to break off her engagement with Wentworth.

I think that there is something dark and melancholy going on in Anne’s psyche. In today’s world she might be said to be suffering from depression. Perhaps, because her personality is in some ways understated, she is someone who does not outwardly display strong emotions. This inner sadness is easily missed by both the other characters in the novel as well as by its readers.  Perhaps this despondency would be overlooked even in today’s world due to the fact that Anne seems to be such an inward thinker. Quiet people sometimes hide their melancholia deep within their soul. In my opinion, Austen has portrayed this brilliantly here.

The state of Anne’s mind seems to be a function of several factors. She is surrounded by people who are of lesser substance than her. They undervalue substantive ideas, reading, real emotions and ethical behavior. At times in the narrative, one gets the sense that they are draining her.

In a striking passage, Anne’s father and sister enter a room where a cheerful gathering is taking place.

“the door was thrown open for Sir Walter and Miss Elliot, whose entrance seemed to give a general chill. Anne felt an instant oppression, and wherever she looked saw symptoms of the same. The comfort, the freedom, the gaiety of the room was over, hushed into cold composure, determined silence, or insipid talk, to meet the heartless elegance of her father and sister. How mortifying to feel that it was so! “

It is clear that Wentworth was the love of Anne’s life. Before his return, however, he had faded into the past. The one missed opportunity for a special human connection seems to hang around Anne’s neck like an albatross.

At one point, a walk with friends is described. As befitting her mood and perhaps her general position in the social connections of the book, it is observed,

“Anne's object was, not to be in the way of anybody”

As the walk proceeds, the symbolism and imagery of autumn seem to come into play in an important way.

from the view of the last smiles of the year upon the tawny leaves, and withered hedges, and from repeating to herself some few of the thousand poetical descriptions extant of autumn, that season of peculiar and inexhaustible influence on the mind of taste and tenderness, that season which had drawn from every poet, worthy of being read, some attempt at description, or some lines of feeling”

It seems that autumn, “that season of peculiar and inexhaustible influence on the mind,” has been ingrained into Anne.

At another point, Anne realizes that though she is a talented musician, her family and friends disregard her abilities, but there is poignant allusion of a past when one person, Wentworth, did not diminish her,

Excepting one short period of her life, she had never, since the age of fourteen, never since the loss of her dear mother, known the happiness of being listened to, or encouraged by any just appreciation or real taste” [Emphasis mine]

Notably, as the book ends, Anne and Wentworth are happily married, but there still seems to be that hint of dread in Anne’s soul.  There is the prospect that Wentworth might be called back to active duty and thus away from the household.

This subtle sadness inherent in Anna’s character has helped make this my favorite Jane Austen book thus far. I hade previously read Emma, my commentary being  here, and Pride and Prejudice my commentary being here and here.

There is a lot more to this book. It is full of Austen’s dry humor, keen insights into human relations, dynamic characters and an entertaining and fun plot. The writing is outstanding. I highly recommend this work for anyone who is even remotely interested in this type of novel. It is simply one of the best of its kind.


Harvee said...

Sounds like a good reason for melancolia - she's surrounded by people that drag her down! Interesting comments, Brian.

Lory said...

"Subtle sadness" describes Persuasion perfectly. Austen combines melancholy and comedy in such a masterful way. Thanks for your thoughtful commentary.

Caroline said...

When I reviewd it two years ago someone pointed out that when she wrote Persuasion, she already knew she was dying. It's very mournful. I know it's many people's favourite but it wasn't mine. I liked Pride and Prejudice and Mansfield Park more but it comes right after these. Your wonderful review makes me want to read it again. It's a bit of a coincidence but I just watched the BBC two part film of 2008 I think. I thought it wasn't bad but far from as good as the novel.

James said...

Your commentary is perceptive with its focus on the possible source of Anne's melancholy. When I reviewed this novel I highlighted "the depth and subtleties of her emotional life" as the essence of the book and its strength. The use of nature (Autumn) to mirror Anne's being is also important.
Your comment about people who do not value "substantive ideas" and reading brought home to me one of the reasons this book resonates in today's culture; at least for those of us who read books and consider the importance of ideas.
Like you I consider this along with Emma as my two favorite of Austen's novels.

@parridhlantern said...

I'm really quite a philistine, and the longer I remain in the world of book blogging the more I realise this. I don't get this writer at all, in fact I've gone on record as stating that this is the 19th century's equivalent of chick-lit, and I know this book has a formidable army of devotees, I've tried & I just can't understand why, no reason, just don't get it.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Harvee - I think that Austen identified certain truths about negative people in this book. It is interesting that in our times, that we still talk a lot about such people.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Lory - The combination of mirth and sadness does indeed have universal appeal. I think that it is one of the reasons for Austen's enduring popularity.

Brian Joseph said...

Ho Caroline - the darkness was one of the reasons that I liked this so much. Pride and Prejudice was so good and it is so difficult to say which one I thought was the best. I have not read Mansfield Park yet but I hope to soon.

I really also need to get around to seeing some of the film versions.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi James - While I was reading this I sensed that Austen was speaking to the people in the world who think and read.

I really need to rad all her books in order to properly choose a favorite.

I am off to check out your commentary on this book.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Gary - the Philistine comment made me laugh.

I do think that Austen, as well as other Victorian novelists to a lesser degree, heavily influenced much of the vacuous literature of our time, including what is labeled Chick - Lit.

With that, I think that there is a lot here in terms of characterization as well as observations on the human condition that justify the acclaim that these books receive.

HKatz said...

Great review, and I especially liked the focus on Anne's state of mind. Austen isn't generally thought of as an author who explores darkness in the psyche, but she does - and it hurts to see Anne so regularly undervalued by people who should love her. And it hurts (in a good way, but still hurts) to read about her longing for someone who understands and sees her.

JacquiWine said...

Great commentary, Brian. Long time since I read this novel, but it's my favourite of Jane Austen's works. I'm often drawn towards characters with an inner sadness so I guess that's why I connected with this one.

Felicity Grace Terry said...

Funny the different things we take with us from a book. Not a fan of this author to begin with, I've never gotten a sense of her writing having a particular sense of humour.

Perhaps older and wiser (or at least I'd like to think so) and more perceptive than when I last attempted to read any of her books I will some day give her another go.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Hila.

I think that the longing for someone to understand us, is so very common for so many people. It seems that it is one of the reasons why this book is so popular.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Jacqui.

A little inner sadness really does add to a character. It seems like it is impossible to appreciate good boos without some appreciation of it.

Anonymous said...

Your superb posting has me poised to reread _Persuasion_, but Austen's novel (Harold Bloom's favorite) will have to wait until I have worked my way through Flannery O'Connor and Edgar Allan Poe (currently on my reading plan at my blog, Beyond Eastrod).

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Tracy - I would not have liked Jane Austen when I was younger. If you gave her a try I would love to hear your thoughts on her.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks for stopping by and thanks for the good word R.T.

I is interesting that this is Harold Bloom's favorite Austen novel. I really like Bloom's writing even when I disagree with him as I often to.

Your comment regarding your reading plans is making me think how there is so much to read and so little time to do it.

Sharon Wilfong said...

Hi Brian! I love, love, love Austin! I appreciate your insight into her character. You know, when I first read Persuasion, I didn't enjoy it because I thought Austin was being a little too self-righteous. Anne was just a little too above it all, surrounded by simpletons and narcissists.
Later I saw a very fine television production of it on PBS and it became a favorite.

I have since read it a few times and I've come to the conclusion that Anne is really more of a window by which we see the other characters. The other characters are really types and not real people. It's Austin's satire of the world she knew.

I'll have to disagree with those who think Austin is Victorian chick lit. I defy any chick lit writer to even come close to the level of writing, the power of word play or perspicacity of human nature. Just because her books include romance doesn't make them shallow. Besides, just how deep is the romance in chick lit? Not very. More like high school crushes and flash in the pan relationships. Austin's heroes and heroines are in it for the long run.

Have a great week!

Suko said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Suko said...

Brian Joseph, I enjoyed reading your thoughtful, insightful post. After reading this, I feel sorry for Anne Elliot. I think it's time for me to read Persuasion. Excellent review!

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Sharon - I do think that there is a little bit of self righteousness to Austen's writing. But I think that it is the perfect amount and thus adds to the value of her books. Kind of like a little tart lemon flavor added to food.

Her work is definitely full if substance on all sorts of levels and deserves the acclaim that it received.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Suko.

If you read this I would love to read what you thought about it.

Anonymous said...

I read Persuasion earlier this year for the first and really enjoyed the book. I appreciated reading your thoughts on Anne's state of mind because it never occurred to me how much she was in a survivor mode just to get through each day of her situation. You can't help feeling glad that her luck changes.

Maria Behar said...

GREAT commentary as always, Brian!

Although I haven't read this Austen novel, I can see that your detailed analysis of it gives a very clear picture of its overall mood, as well as personality of its main character. I can certainly empathize with her. If I had a friend like Anne, I'm sure we'd get along much better than if the friend were more like Elizabeth Benet. My own temperament is somewhat similar to Anne's.

I do own this book, so I must to get to it sometime soon. You have certainly piqued my curiosity!

Thanks for the excellent review!! : )

Rachel said...

Hi Brian! Austen is one of my all-time favorite authors, and one of the few whose books I've read more than once. (The others being Harry Potter, Hobbit, and LOTR.) Persuasion is one I haven't read in a while, but it is the next I hope to reread. Sense and Sensibility is my favorite, but S&S is SO much less mature than Persuasion, and I suspect that after I reread it, Persuasion will become my new favorite. As you said, the mood of this book is darker, more brooding and melancholy. S&S has its share of melancholy, but that's satirical melancholy whereas Anne has feelings that the reader can really empathize with. I believe this was the last of her novels, was it not? That may be why it's the most mature. Also, I think Austen was sick when she was writing Persuasion - that might also lend a little melancholy to the story.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks so much Maria. Though I think that Elizabeth's character was so well crafted also, I agree that Ann would likely be a bit easier to get along with.

At least in terms of literary characters. There is something so interesting in some melancholy.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks so much for stopping and thanks so much for the good word Rachel.

I actually have not read Sense and sensibility yet but I hope to read it soon.

Persuasion was indeed Austen's last novel. Like a few other authors, perhaps as the impending end of her life shaded her work a bit. This was a very mature novel compared to the other Austen books that I have read.

Austen is definitely an author that stands up to rereading.

JaneGS said...

Persuasion is definitely one of my favorite Austen novels, and Anne is a lovely person. I agree that Austen has portrayed Anne's psychological deftly, and I like the notion of Wentworth's lost love as Anne's albatross. Her isolation is profound and I can't help but breathe easier once I know that Wentworth never really stopped loving her. His albatross, though, is anger and bitterness.

I always wonder how Austen would have edited it had she had the chance before she died.

Lovely review--so glad you are getting the chance to read Austen.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Jane.

I agree with you about Wentworth. I suppose that it is my gender, but I do empathize with his charicter a lot. I can certainly understand his tendency to be angry and bitter. Perhaps I shall write another post about him.

The Bookworm said...

Hi Brian, fantastic post here on Persuasion, one of my favorite Austen novels. I think you hit the nail on the head in regards to Anne's being depressed and drained by her family. She is so quiet and passive, and that really led her to lose the love of her life the first time around.
I was so happy when she and Wentworth finally got together again and his letter to her stole my breath away.
Austen was masterful as always. I read somewhere that she said she wanted her novels to have happy endings because there were so few happy endings in real life.

Brian Joseph said...

hi Naida - Passivity is a good word for Anne's character. That aspect is very much in contrast to Austen's other protagonists,

I had heard that quote about Austen and happy endings. As I read a fair number of books with not so happy endings, I appreciate Austen's very upbeat conclusions.

Delia (Postcards from Asia) said...

Great review, Brian, I'm tempted to read the book. It's been too long since I read a classic novel. I like how you described Anne.

Violet said...

I'm glad you liked Persuasion. It's my favourite Austen novel, and as someone commented above, Austen was terribly ill and struggled to complete the manuscript, and that's probably why there's such an air of poignancy and melancholy in the narrative. It has been said that there is much of Austen herself in the Anne character, and that she wrote for Anne the happy ending she had once wished for herself but knew she would never have.

I like the novel so much because it speaks to the question of constancy, and of knowing your own mind and being your own person. After allowing herself to be persuaded by others to do what suited them, Anne learns that happiness lies in being true to yourself and trusting your own feelings.

Anne and Fanny (Mansfield Park) are my favourite Austen heroines. A lot of readers don't like Fanny, but I admire her integrity and constancy. I think Anne grows to be a bit like Fanny by the end of Persuasion.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Violet - Being your own person is a theme that resounds throughout this book. Such a basic theme puts a book at risk for being simplistic, but in Austen's hands it does not.

I have not yet read Mansfield Park but I will likely do so within the next year or so.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Delia. I have been read my share of classic novels lately that have been very long. One thing that recommends this one is that it is at least short.

thecuecard said...

Good for you Brian, returning to Austen in August. I need to do that. Sounds like Persuasion is your favorite. Good to know!

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Susan - I to think that Persuasion is my favorite Austen novel that I have read thus far. I still have some of her great novels to be read so we shall see if that remains true.

So many books, so little time said...

I have yet to read this one Brian so can't read your review just yet. Once I get round to it, I have the complete novels of Jane Austen in one book, I will come back and check out your thoughts :)


Brian Joseph said...

Hi Lainy - I do the same thing, that is not read commentary if I plan to read a book soon. I am glad that I put up the spoiler alert :)

Thanks for stopping by.

So many books, so little time said...

Me too Brian, had a few books (and movies) spoiled because it wasn't highlighted.