Sunday, August 5, 2012
Review: Persuasion by Jane Austen
Persuasion by Jane Austen
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I read this as part of Roof Beam Reader's Austen in August event. I'd been planning to read it for some time, but the literary event gave me an excuse to.
This was Jane Austen's last completed novel, and, some say, gave her own story a happy ending. I can't comment on that part, because I didn't hire a medium before writing my review, and I think it's problematic to assume books are closely tied to an author's personal life.
The book tells the story of Anne Elliot, 27 years old and unmarried. She's quiet and kind and reserved, which is why her selfish sister and father basically ignore her. Eight years before, she was engaged to Frederick Wentworth, but let herself be persuaded by her friend, Lady Russell, to break off the engagement because Frederick had no money or family connections.
At the story's start, their positions are reversed. He's a Captain in the Royal Navy, and has won a lot of money for his naval success. Her father, meanwhile, has frittered away his money, and has to rent out his family home to make ends meet, which he'd rather do than live frugally for the next 8 years.
Anne stays with her sister, Mary, for a while, before heading out to join her father and sister in Bath. This gives her a chance to reacquaint herself with Frederick Wentworth, and for him to realize she's still worthy of loving. When he follows her to Bath, it can be only for one reason, but first social dictates of politeness and proper channels stand in their way.
The climax of the book comes with Anne talking to one of Frederick's friends about women remaining constantly in love moreso than men (and dismissing books written by men about woman's inconstancy, in a speech that made me grin), which Frederick overhears. His hope is renewed, and he sends her a letter confessing he still loves her, and will find a way to get her answer. She frets, but ultimately bumps into him, and they're able to discuss their feelings openly for the first time all book.
Supposedly, Austen didn't have as much time to polish this manuscript as she did others, because she came down with the illness that killed her while she was writing this. Still, I didn't see that the book suffered much for it. I thought the narrative tension was tighter in this book, and the plot moved faster. The ending takes place over a couple of days. Anne keeps trying to talk to people about important things, but keeps missing her chance, for one reason or another. Just when she thinks it's safe to bring up sensitive matters, her younger sister and her whole family shows up to complicate everything.
The stakes are also higher in this book. One young woman sustains head trauma, another is crippled and financially ruined thanks to another character, and the family estate stands to risk demolishing, if one selfish, two-faced cousin gets his way. Anne is sweet and even-tempered, but it's her calmness in the face of crisis that serves her best in this narrative, because there's regularly something to panic about. Austen makes the events noteworthy not by sending her protagonist into a tizzy, but by riling up everyone around her.
There is, of course, the signature Austen wit, the comments on manners and society, and the subtle digs throughout. Most of them are about vanity and hypochondria, but there's also some very subtle hints of what Austen thinks of Bath, which is sort of a resort spa, at least in Austen's time.
I read this book on audio, narrated by Juliet Stevenson. Stevenson has a lovely voice, and she reads clearly with a consistent volume. I kept up my motivation on long walks listening to this, and it was Stevenson's lively narration as much as Austen's words that kept me going.
I think this is my favorite Jane Austen book. If you're thinking of reading Jane Austen (and this August is a great time to hop on board), you could do well to pick this one up. The first couple of chapters are a bit info-dumpy, but the story that follows makes it perfectly forgivable.
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