Thursday, December 13, 2012

Another visit to Bath

Persuasion, Jane Austen

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!


  1. I think Persuasion might be my favorite, too. And I can't wait to hear your thoughts on the John Mullan.

  2. Persuasion is one of my favourite Austen novels - I love both Anne Elliot and Captain Wentworth and I also found their story the most romantic and moving. I agree with you about the Austen adaptations too. Nothing compares to actually reading the novels themselves, in my opinion!

  3. I love Persuasion but I have never really warmed to Anne. I don't know why. I think she might be too romantic for me. As for Wentworth, despite that letter, I find him the least attractive Austen hero (yes, even less attractive that Edward Ferrars, that milksop who somehow wins the amazing Elinor). I can't forgive his rudeness to Anne when they meet again; it seems like such an immature response. What I do love about this book, in addition to the writing itself, are the supporting characters. Anne's family is magnificent, I adore Lady Russell, and I will always wish to know more about the Crofts.

    Your mention of Christmas scenes in Austen has me itching for a reread of Emma!

  4. I can't quite decide whether P&P or Persuasion is my favorite either. I love them both so much, but in rather different ways.

    And I know you said not to get you started about it, but you've got me curious with your reference to Colin Firth's skinny dipping scene. Does that mean you haven't seen the Ehle/Firth version at all? I'll be the first to say that I do sometimes get annoyed at how people seem to forget that there was no skinny dipping or wet shirts in the Austen novel, but that aside, it really is quite a good adaptation of the novel. The characterization is excellent, and even the wet shirt scene has its value in showing just how awkward that moment was. (That scene is one of the most painful for me to read in the book.)

    But this post is about Persuasion--and I actually had no idea the book was unfinished at Austen's death. I knew it hadn't been published, but I didn't realize she was still actively fine-tuning it. Interesting!

  5. I think Persuasion is my favorite Austen novel. It's definitely one of the funniest. Sir Walter is hilarious! And I love the raucous Christmas scene at the Musgroves.

  6. I loved Persuasion and Anne Elliot too. The John Mullan book is definitely one to anticipate and I think there'll be a great deal of Austen rereading when it's available.

  7. Audrey, I'm getting myself the Mullan book - it will be a lovely belated Christmas present!

    Helen, I know that the TV & film adaptations introduce a lot of people to Austen, and that's a good thing. I just hope they go on to discover the books, which always tell a richer story to my mind.

    Claire, that's interesting. I've never thought that Wentworth is rude to Anne - he didn't mean his comment about her changed looks to get back to her (though if he'd known Mary longer he'd have expected it). I was just thinking earlier what a happy surprise the Crofts will have when Wentworth breaks the news to them - I can never decide if they know by the time of the party in the last chapters. And I want to read Emma again myself now!

    Teresa, I haven't seen the Ehle/Firth version at all - though it was the Rintoul/Garvie version that introduced me to Austen all those years ago. So I can't rightfully critique the scene, despite having it described in gushing if not salivating detail. And the look on their faces when I say, well, you know, that doesn't acutally take place in the novel. I didn't mean "unfinished" like Sanditon or The Watsons, of course - not printer-ready, but I don't think Henry made any major edits.

    Elizabeth, I've been comparing Austen's fathers since I wrote this - and thinking that I'd take Sir Walter over Mr Woodhouse!

  8. Cat, from reading Audrey's posts I know that the Mullan book is packed with all kinds of fascinating sidelights on Austen's stories. There's one chapter heading I've seen about the dangers of visiting the seashore, I'm just wild to read that one (i feel like Louisa Musgrove :)

  9. I really like Persuasion, it is one of the Austen's I have finished and could probably read again, however my next Austen is going to be P&P. I've only read it once, when I was 17, and I am very excited to see what I think of it now, 20 years later.

    I love Christmas scenes in classic novels! Thanks for pointing out the scene from Persuasion.

  10. I didn't fully appreciate Persuasion when I first read it at age 17, but I've loved it more each time I've read it since. I bet you'll see P&P differently this time! and it has Christmas as well, just not as festively.


Thank you for taking the time to read, and to comment. I always enjoy hearing different points of view about the books I am reading, even if we disagree!