Saturday, July 22, 2006

Book Review: Persuasion

This is the last of Jane Austen's novels, published posthumously. And it's too bad--I've grown rather fond of her style of writing.

I think Persuasion is my second favorite, after Pride and Prejudice. Anne Elliot is the second daughter of Sir Walter Elliot. Anne is sensible, practical, unassuming--which means her opinions and desires are overlooked by everyone in the family. Everyone, that is, except Lady Russell, a close friend of Anne's mother. When Anne's mother died, Lady Russell took it upon herself to watch out for Anne's interests because Anne reminded Lady Russell so much of Anne's dear mother.

Anne had been engaged to a young navy Lieutenant, Lt. Wentworth. However, Lady Russell persuaded Anne that Lt. Wentworth, who had no family and no fortune, was not worthy of her consideration and Anne broke off the engagement. She has always regretted it.

Sir Elliot must lease the family manor in order to make ends meet. The family will move to Bath once a suitable tenant is found. That tenant comes in the form of an Admiral and his wife, landbound now that the war with France is over. The Admiral's wife just happens to be the sister of the former Lieutenant--now Captain--Wentworth. Capt. Wentworth is not married, but is looking for a wife.

Sir Elliot and his eldest daughter move to Bath. Anne will join them later because her youngest sister has demanded that Anne come help nurse her through her "illness." Anne goes, partly out of duty, but also because she really enjoys the company of her brother-in-law's family. And they also enjoy having her around. The Admiral and his wife pay a visit and Capt. Wentworth comes along as well. He claims the attention of Anne's two sisters-in-law and it seems likely he will marry one of them. But which?

The older has an understanding with a young man from the area who is studying to be a curate, but she seems to have forgotten him. The younger is headstrong and impulsive. Anne sits on the sidelines and watches.

Anne is quite happy to finally leave for Bath, although she is not much interested in the social life of Bath itself. But who should follow? The Admiral, his sister, and Capt. Wentworth. Eventually, the whole gang is there and take a fateful trip to Lyme which changes the course of all their lives.

While Persuasion has its share of silly characters, they are more human, less caricature than, for example, Mrs. Bennet. Anne is not young--she is 27. Her older sister is 29, but there is no feeling of "desperation" in marrying them off as in some of the other Austen novels. There is much about duty--duty to one's family, duty to one's friends--and interesting discussions about love and how men and women perceive it. Anne has some wonderful role models to choose among outside of her immediate family.

Persuasion is relatively short--180 pages in my edition. But if I were to introduce Austen to a class, this is not necessarily the one I would start with. (I'd start with Northanger Abbey, rather than Pride and Prejudice.)

Miss Austen was working on a sixth novel at the time of her death. I'd be interested to read what she had written and try to determine where she might have been going. You wouldn't think there would be enough material in the lives of the genteel class for more than one novel, but Miss Austen managed to mine it all.

There is a movie version, made in 1995, with Fiona Shaw (Aunt Petunia) as the wife of the Admiral. I saw it on TV (on one of the cable channels, like AMC or A&E, but I believe it's also available on DVD). I confess that I saw it before I read the book and I was a bit confused by all the location changes and wasn't quite sure who was whom and how they were all related. I'd like to see it again now that I've read the story.

On the March Hare scale: 5 out of 5 Golden Bookmarks.