One of the new books I'm most eagerly anticipating is What Really Matters in Jane Austen, by John Mullan. I've been enviously following Audrey's posts on her reading of it. I'd planned all year to re-read Persuasion for the Classics Challenge but never got around to it. Then the Bath setting of Georgette Heyer's Black Sheep made me take Persuasion straight off the shelf as soon as I'd finished it.
As much as I compare Heyer to Austen, I've never read their books back to back, and I was a little concerned that Heyer might suffer by comparison. But while she is no Jane Austen, I don't think she ever tried to be, and her books are perfect in their own way.
It has been a couple of years since I read Persuasion. Reading so much about the novels and Austen herself keeps the characters and stories fresh in my mind, as does the discussion on the Janeites listserv to which I belong. But in the end I am always drawn back to the novels themselves, to Austen's wonderful words. And, speaking for myself, I don't want adaptations, plays, films, or even audiobooks. All of those are interpretations of Austen, someone else's vision and version - and in many cases, additions to Austen's stories (do not get me started on Colin Firth skinnydipping, which I haven't actually seen but have heard about many, many times).
Though I don't know if I could pick a single favorite among Austen's novels, Persuasion would be at the top, with Emma and Pride and Prejudice. But Anne Elliot is easily my favorite of her heroines, "the elegant little woman of seven and twenty, with every beauty excepting bloom, with manners as consciously right as they were inevitably gentle. . ." Though she is not a wit like Elizabeth Bennet, she has a good sense of humor. Her principles are as strong as Fanny Price's, but she has the confidence and firmness Fanny lacks, while avoiding Emma Wodehouse's arrogance. Like Elinor Dashwood, she bears with a suffering sister while concealing her own heartache, even though Mary's infirmities are mostly imaginary. Of all Austen's heroines, she must be the greatest reader, of the greatest variety, or she could not recommend to Captain Benwick, on a moment's notice, "such works of our best moralists, such collections of the finest letters, such memoirs of characters of worth and suffering," not to mention the poetry they have already been discussing in such detail. In that, I think, she must mirror her creator. Anne is a likeable character and a sympathetic one. Her vain, spendthrift father Sir Walter and her condescending older sister Elizabeth have no use for her, and we judge them accordingly. (But then which of Austen's heroines has a perfectly happy home life, except perhaps for Catherine Morland? At least Anne does not have to suffer an Aunt Norris.)
I think her story is also the most romantic among Austen's heroines. She and Frederick Wentworth were very much in love when she was persuaded to break their engagement, at the urging of her godmother and friend Lady Russell, who objected to
a young man, who had nothing but himself to recommend him, and no hopes of attaining affluence, but in the chances of a most uncertain profession [the Navy], and no connexions to secure even his farther rise in that profession . . .So Anne gave him up, but she never forgot him. Then chance brings the now-Captain Wentworth back into her circle, and she finds her feelings unchanged. Initially he seems bent on showing her what she lost, flirting with young friends of hers and ready to marry one of them. But as the story unfolds, she sees hints that perhaps he is not as indifferent as he seems, and she cannot help hoping that what she now sees as her mistake eight years ago can be rectified.
Elizabeth over at The Bamboo Bookcase has been posting about favorite Christmas scenes in books, which got me thinking about Austen, since several feature in her novels. In Pride and Prejudice, the Gardiners come to spend the holidays at Longbourn, and they take Jane back to London with them when they return. In Emma of course there is the Christmas Eve dinner at the Westons, after which Emma is trapped in a coach with Mr Elton and forced to listen to his proposal. In Persuasion, we have a Christmas scene that could have come from Dickens or Alcott. When Anne and Lady Russell visit the Musgroves, they find
On one side was a table, occupied by some chattering girls, cutting up silk and gold paper; and on the other were tressels and trays, bending under the weight of brawn and cold pies, where riotous boys were holding high revel; the whole completed by a roaring Christmas fire, which seemed determined to be heard, in spite of all the noise of the others.Lady Russell finds it all a bit too much, telling Anne, "I hope I shall remember, in future, not to call at Uppercross in the Christmas holidays."
Persuasion was of course left unfinished at Jane Austen's death. It was edited by her brother Henry for publication with Northanger Abbey. I don't believe that the story we have now, as much as I love it, is the story that Austen herself would have published, if she had lived to complete it. She had already tightened up, and to my mind much improved, the story by editing out a scene where Captain Wentworth is sent to ask Anne if the rumors that she is to marry her cousin Mr Elliot are true. This famous "cancelled chapter" seems awkward and forced. Instead, we get the scene in the Musgroves' parlor at the inn, where Captain Wentworth leaves one of the world's greatest love letters for Anne. I think that Austen must have originally intended something different with the Mrs Smith-Mr Elliot-Mrs Clay subplot, since she makes a point of Anne planning to consult Lady Russell about it, but putting it off for a day. But that is all sheer speculation on my part of course, and it takes nothing away from my enjoyment of the wonderful book that we do have.
This Sunday I look forward to celebrating Jane Austen's 237th birthday with the Greater Houston JASNA chapter, and Janeites around the world!