Actually none needed, ‘Persuasion’ has long been my favourite Jane Austen novel and this is neither the first, nor the last time that I’ve read it. (Incidentally the rather pretty looking OUP cover in the corner is not the edition that I own, mine is a rather battered old penguin with an introduction by D. W. Harding. I love it to the point that it’s falling apart, but must admit the cover is not such that it makes me want to get the camera out...)
I turned to Jane Austen this time because I was feeling a bit low after coming home; there is nobody to touch her for creating an utterly absorbing world to get lost in for a few hours, and of course she can be relied on for a happy ending. This is one of the things I love about reading in general; the right book for the moment will fix my attention until I’ve adjusted to life around me. It’s also why I read determinedly through my lunch breaks; it’s a lot easier to be deal with customers once I feel I’ve really got away from them for a bit.
‘Persuasion’ became my favourite Austen from the first time I read it, without doubt because the plain, quiet, older girl gets her man. I would have been in my teens at the time but even then the allure of the second chance was irresistible, far more so than first love. That Anne Elliot is reconciled to a life of very limited happiness, and yet is absolutely determined not to compromise with marriage where she does not love still strikes me as inspirational. With all due modesty she clearly has an idea of her own worth which won’t allow her to sell herself into matrimony despite the advantages it would bring her, and Austen takes care to provide Anne with a proposal which might easily have provided her with a happy home where she could expect to have been well loved, something entirely absent in her immediate domestic circle. (I am assuming that everybody who reads this will have read ‘Persuasion’ or seen an adaptation of it, so apologies if I’m not making much sense, but all I can say is read the book!)
The thing with Austen though is that you see find something new every time you read her, and whereas in the past I’ve had an uncomplicated liking for Anne, and a suitably low opinion of the rest of her proud, selfish and foolish family this time I found myself sympathising with the generally unpleasant older sister Elizabeth. This maybe because for the first time I read the introduction, there’s a reason I don’t normally bother to do this, and it’s because I normally find myself in violent disagreement with the far more qualified opinion of the academic responsible. So it was this time – but how else could it be when you find someone doesn’t entirely agree with you in their reading of your much loved classic?
Still if I hadn’t read the intro I wouldn’t have been looking at Miss Elizabeth for signs of humanity and that would have been a shame. Whereas Anne, unappreciated as she is within her family, could if she needed command a home with her great friend Lady Russell (a woman with no children and comfortable means who might be depended on to leave Anne well looked after in her will?) or with her sister Mary. (Not very tempting perhaps, but her sisters family are fond of her, she’s likable after all.) Elizabeth’s prospects are pretty grim. At 29 she’s reached a dangerous age for an unmarried woman, she’s no longer young however attractive she still is, she clearly doesn’t have the trick of being liked, and has presumably never received a serious proposal. She has more than her fair share of the family pride and is without doubt a fairly silly woman, but... Elizabeth takes her mother’s place when she’s only 16, she’s close to her father (who encourages all her worst characteristics) and used to the precedence of her borrowed position. The families fall from fortune affects her more than her sisters; her expectations have always been higher, and by the end she’s suffered the indignity of seeing the only man she’s ever been inclined to care for reject her twice, court her sister, and finally abscond with her best friend as his mistress. Even worse there is the possibility that said friend will one day take (and exceed) her social position. Elizabeth has no friends, and no training to prepare for life as a dependant.
Previously I’ve always read her almost as a parody – a Cinderella style ugly sister (despite her handsome appearance), but now I’m inclined to think that Austen also had moments of sympathy for Elizabeth, hers are the sins of the father, and she certainly stands as a warning against the sin of pride, but she’s no Mrs Elton for example (again assuming everyone is entirely familiar with the Austen cannon). The end result is that I’m vaguely looking forward to the time when I pick up ‘Persuasion’, and wondering what I will find in it next time. I’m also considering a sneaky ‘Pride and Prejudice’ binge, and I’m quite reconciled to being at home again.