Frances Wilson on Persuasion by Jane Austen
I've just finished reading it again, for the umpteenth time. And I mean reading, living the book, not studying.
I've re-read all Jane Austen's novels dozens (literally) of times. It doesn't take a new TV version to send me back to check how (much more) brilliant the original is - there's only got to be a brief mention in an article or by a friend, and I'm off again, dipping in and then finding I have to start at the beginning and go on, with as little interruption as possible, until I get to the end. Which I know already. How does she do it?
So, I'm a fan. I love them all. But Persuasion is my favourite. I think it always has been, but I'm not sure. I don't remember any other one holding that top position, but did Persuasion, with its fiercer anger, its deeper dealing with love and loss, its older heroine, only move out ahead of the others as I got older too? Possibly.
In fact, on this re-read, I found myself wondering how I ever read it a first time. The opening is hard going, I'm a slow reader, and I must have been in my impatient teens, wanting to get on with the proper story, when I first read it. How could I have put up with all that stuff about the Baronetage; with Sir Walter and Elizabeth, vain snobs, unpleasant to the point of cruelty, way beyond being funny; all that setting the plot in motion with the machinations of their sycophantic lawyer? It must have made me furious - which, of course, it was meant to. Self-effacing Anne barely mentioned till chapter 4. Just in time. Clever.
Because now the whole tone changes. Check the direct, uncluttered way we are put in the picture about Anne's tragedy, all harshness gone. She may have allowed herself to be wrongly advised, thus breaking her own heart, but you never doubt her sincerity or her suffering. Surely all the conjecture about Jane Austen herself having loved and lost by the time she wrote Persuasion must be true. How else could she make the reader care so much, empathize so completely, with such a quiet heroine?
But I always want Jane Austen's heroines to have happy endings, and one of the things I love is that they do. So what is it that makes Persuasion my favourite? Well, it has all the things I love in all the books: an intricate plot interwoven with sub-plots; a cast of delicious gossips, bores, busybodies, kindly souls; the sense that the real dramas of life take place on the small screen, in parlours, between families, in communities, with big-stuff wars happening off-stage; the certainty that kindness, good sense, good humour, love, will prevail. The happy ending.
But Persuasion has also got two main characters (Sir Walter and Elizabeth) who are so unpleasant that they are truly insufferable. Luckily Jane Austen has the wit to explain why a nice woman like Anne's mother had married him. There is an exceedingly dull best friend for the heroine (Lady Russell). There's a decidedly made-up sub-plot to bring about the denouement (Mrs Smith). And there is a hero who is in danger of being too-charming-to-be-true, and at the same time possibly a bore - imagine that evening in Lyme when 'Captains Wentworth and Harville led the talk... anecdotes in abundance to occupy and entertain the others...' I've been at evenings like that. In fact, he is altogether too sure of himself. Oh dear, I sound like Lady Russell - but of course I do. That's what is so brilliant.
And then there is the fall. Clever, so clever, that the spot where Louisa literally falls, missing Wentworth's arms, jolting him into complete self-reappraisal - so clever that it is the same spot where Anne is seen for the first time. Seen properly, as beautiful. Up until then she's been nice kind Anne. Even the reader has taken for granted the quiet way she has coped with grief, hardly recognizing it as strength. But once she's visible, she's seen to be strong. She becomes centre stage in her own life. The story speeds up.
Perfect timing. All the way through the book you are kept waiting, your curiosity is aroused, information is withheld, just long enough. The story unfolds, is slipped to you - behind people's backs, from overheard conversations, scraps of gossip, by an ambiguous glance, a chance meeting; because it begins to rain. The result is mysterious, oblique, hinted at, so perfectly timed that it never feels like plotting. Sir Walter, Elizabeth, Mrs Clay, Mr Eliot are the 'plotters' - and look what happens to them.
So, I love it. I knew I'd love it all over again, but what I didn't expect, given that I know so well what happens, was that I'd not be able to put it down. I kept thinking, one more chapter, then I'll stop. But once Anne reaches Bath, the story unfolds with the pace of a whodunnit. The reader swings, with Anne, between he-loves-me and he-loves-me-not. Hope is given, then withdrawn. We are reeled in.
Pace, timing – I use these words, but what it feels like is magic. I am spellbound.
And now, of course, I'm off to re-read all the rest, not just because I want to check if Persuasion really is my favourite, but because I want to.