It’s an important day in the Jane Austen calendar today – 245 years since her death in 1817. It’s possibly the world’s worst kept secret that I love Jane Austen, and I wanted to share something in her honour.
With everything flying around the internet about the most recent adaptation of her work, released just three days ago, I thought I’d share this… (I apologise/warn you in advance – it’s a long piece! Also, in my enthusiasm to celebrate Jane Austen’s anniversary, I feel like I’ve allowed myself a stream of consciousness…)
Going back to Austen’s novels
Last year, I set myself the fun challenge of rereading Austen in order. I read Sense and Sensibility, then Pride and Prejudice, and was about to embark upon Mansfield Park when I got swept up in other projects and then…
Promptly forgot about my challenge.
And now I’m back, with a blog about going back to Austen’s novels – but it’s not in order. In fact, I’ve jumped straight to her final novel…. With the arrival of the latest adaptation of Persuasion on Netflix this past Friday, I couldn’t wait to reread it.
I’m currently writing my review of that (SO MANY THOUGHTS! SO MANY!) but I also wanted to share my experience of rereading her final novel, which has long been my second favourite after Pride and Prejudice, but one I’ve neglected to return to for a few years.
Persuading Anne Elliot
Persuasion was published in 1817, alongside Northanger Abbey (the original title page reads 1818, but it first appeared in December 1817), a few months after Austen passed away. The two novels were accompanied by a biographical note about her: after all, all of her novels had been published anonymously.
Persuasion follows the story of Anne Elliot who, in recent years, I’d begun to think of in the same bracket as Fanny Price in Mansfield Park: quiet, meek, and unobtrusive. (And I say this still with a love for Fanny Price, though it might not sound like it). Anne is not bold like Elizabeth Bennet, or meddling like Emma Woodhouse. She has some of the stoicism of Elinor Dashwood, but rereading the novel gave me a new appreciation for Anne as a heroine all of her own.
She is the oldest of Austen’s heroines at twenty-seven years old (I had the galling realisation when I was sat reading Persuasion that this is my age now, and only for a few more weeks…), and is, perhaps correspondingly, the most mature and certainly introspective.
She is passionate and feeling and sensible, and is a source of great comfort to those who appreciate her in the novel – which certainly isn’t her father and her two sisters.
Anne, with an elegance of mind and sweetness of character, which must have placed her high with any people of real understanding, was nobody with either father or sister; her word had no weight, her convenience was always to give way – she was only Anne.Persuasion, p2.
Eight years later…
Persuasion is short, so we are plunged straight into the self-importance of Anne’s father, Sir Walter Elliot, and the error of his spendthrift, self-important ways: they are to rent out the family home, Kellynch Hall, and go to Bath, where living could be cheaper and they will hopefully be solvent in a couple of years’ time.
Lo and behold, the tenants of Kellynch are to be an Admiral and Mrs Croft: Mrs Croft being the sister of a gentleman Anne fell in love with eight years before, and has forever regretted not marrying. She didn’t marry him because he lacked rank and fortune, and her close family friend, Lady Russell, convinced her to give him up.
Now they were as strangers; nay, worse than strangers, for they could never become acquainted. It was a perpetual estrangement.Persuasion, p41.
It was really lovely to go back and enjoy the story of Persuasion – because I think when I read and reread it a lot as a teenager, it would be with a race to get to The Letter.
This time, I savoured it, and I noticed little things I’d forgotten about.
The way Captain Wentworth helps wrestle Anne’s unruly nephews off of her when she has been playing with them and the quoting of poetry between Anne and Captain Benwick at Lyme. I’d been so obsessed with the trajectory of them towards the romantic resolution, that it was really nice to take all of those things in – especially how much Captain Wentworth struggles to begin with to forgive Anne for rejecting him.
Travelling through Regency England
Aside from the resolution at the end, I think my favourite parts of the novel take place at Lyme Regis. With the arrival of Sanditon on our screens, we’ve been able to see more of a glimpse into the burgeoning Regency world of seaside tourism.
I’ve always wondered what Sanditon would have turned out like if Austen had finished it, particularly because we get some great glimpses into how much she enjoyed herself being at Lyme in Persuasion. Austen herself spent time at Lyme in 1803 and 1804, and rumour has it that this is actually where she met the great love of her life.
…the Cobb itself, its old wonders and new improvements, with the very beautiful line of cliffs stretching out to the east of the town, are what the stranger’s eye will seek; and a very strange stranger it must be, who does not see charms in the immediate environs of Lyme, to make him wish to know it better.Persuasion, p62.
I wonder sometimes if this was inspiration for Anne and Captain Wentworth’s lost love, for Captain Benwick’s loss of his fiancée… Austen would have been about Anne’s age during her time at Lyme, if not a year or two older.
Sometimes I tell myself off for looking too deeply at the parallels between life and fiction for authors such as Austen, but this was something that I really thought a lot about as I was reading this time, as well as the immense sense of place felt in both Lyme and Bath, where Austen lived for some years. It does add resonance when you know these are places she knew well.
Lyme is also where it feels like the hope in the novel begins to grow again: it is here that Louisa Musgrove has her accident where she jumps off the Cobb, and where Anne coolly jumps in to coordinate the rescue effort, and make things better. Captain Wentworth is almost paralysed with worry, that he didn’t catch Louisa, and that everybody believes there is an attachment between them – and is unexpectedly effusive in giving Anne the praise that she is always so capable.
“…but if Anne will stay, no one so proper, so capable as Anne.” She paused a moment to recover from the emotion of hearing herself so spoken of. The other two warmly agreed with what he said, and she then appeared. “You will stay, I am sure; you will stay and nurse her;” cried he, turning to her and speaking with a glow, and yet a gentleness, which seemed almost restoring the past.Persuasion, p74.
It is emotional, and wonderful, and means so much more than he really says.
A suitably terrible villain
I’d forgotten the drama of Mr Elliot: of course he turns up at a highly convenient time, but I’d forgotten that Mrs Smith is the key to unravelling his plan of deception.
What I think is also so interesting about Mr Elliot’s character is that Anne seems to suffer by all her relations: her father is vain and self-obsessed, as is her older sister Elizabeth, and her younger sister Mary is – as the recent adaptation labelled correctly – a complete narcissist. Mr Elliot joins the list of relations who let Anne down, whom she must rise above for her own happiness.
I think it is also Austen’s pointed way of showing that noble birth does not necessarily equate to noble character.
And now… THIS BRINGS ME TO THE LETTER. (Sorry for the all caps…)
So, Anne realises that Wentworth is not engaged to Louisa, that Louisa has actually fallen in love with Captain Benwick. This brings her even more hope: and when they see each other in Bath, much has changed. And then, the crescendo of the novel…
Which just happens to be possibly the best letter I’ve ever read. I love reading those articles that bring together real love letters from history to see if I’ll find one I love more than this (there’s one from Johnny Cash to June Carter Cash that I love but it still doesn’t top this), but no.
You pierce my soul, I am half agony, half hope… I have loved none but you… for you alone I think and plan…
This is Jane Austen at her very best, which I think is all the more poignant in that it is her final complete novel. (Read a longer excerpt of the letter here).
I’d also forgotten that there is more that follows the letter: in every adaptation we tend to end with the letter, and then a little happily ever after part. I forgot that we have the joy of the happily ever after in the novel itself: a chapter that embraces the happiness of the heroine and hero, and tells us that Anne became – finally – a happy wife of a sailor. It is a satisfying conclusion and one that I sat smiling at for a little while after finishing.
Persuasion is just as – if not more – wonderful than I remember. It is short but powerful – less amusing maybe than Austen’s other novels, but none the less enjoyable for it.
For now, in honour of Jane Austen’s 245th anniversary, I leave you with another wonderful quotation from the end of the novel:
“I must endeavour to subdue my mind to my fortune. I must learn to brook being happier than I deserve.”Persuasion, p162.