Truly, Romantic Constancy?

We don’t quite get along, Jane Austen and I. I’ve all but renounced her much-loved Pride and Prejudice, and not because I enjoy being contrary [though I occasionally do] but because it simply isn’t the story—love, social-niceties, of-the-era—I am looking for, or even want. Austen and I, we do not suit. I have accepted that—although I still remain open to the fact that, perhaps, one slow day years and years from now, I’ll reacquaint myself with Lizzy and Mr. Darcy, and feel something other than Meh.

I wanted to read Persuasion because I figured it was my Austen, finally. No battle of wits, no hiding behind fans, no overheated country balls. Here were two people with history: disappear-into-the-wallpaper Anne Elliott has fallen in love with the ambitious and charismatic naval officer Frederick Wentworth—but breaks off their engagement on the advise of family and friends. It is, after all, young, socially and financially unadvisable love.

Eight years later, they meet again—“Once so much to each other! Now nothing!”—and they have to reconcile the past, and their feelings now: How much has Anne changed? that is, has she grown a spine? how has Wentworth [now a captain] truly been all these years?

It’s an intriguing hook, one with great potential for emotional depth. Premise, I like you, I wrote in my notes.

But that’s about it. All too soon, I realized that Persuasion wasn’t for me—and perhaps Austen would not really be an author I’d love. Oh, I understand its quietness, I can step back and appreciate its subtlety, its undercurrents, the passion sizzling beneath the calm, occasionally tongue-in-cheek narrative. I could see that it was a poignant love story. But, see, it just wasn’t mine.

I could understand that, in much the same way the first chapters saw Anne run roughshod by her family, friends, and the countryside, Anne’s place in the narrative took a backseat. That it’s style reflecting content. But, good lord, it was so frustrating for me—I cheered when Austen would relent and let Anne hint at what she felt. Anne, whose “word had no weight, her convenience was always to give way; —she was only Anne.” Yes, yes, but not for me. I waited for Anne to assert herself.

The intro to this edition mentions how Anne can’t be the timid spinster she’s resigned herself to be—that her mind’s a passionate tumult. Well, yes, yes, I see your point, but I can’t see enough of it in the text. And, yes, perhaps my boredom had me greatly missing Anne’s growth as a character—but after a while, it wasn’t my concern anymore. I just needed story, I needed the assurance that I was reading a novel that remotely liked me.

Anne and Captain Wentworth’s reunion had me cheering. And then I waited, again.

The highlight of the story for me was when Captain Wentworth finally took the stage, and the point of view—just a handful of paragraphs in the entire novel, actually. Here, his feelings toward his and Anne’s steely reunion:

He had thought her wretchedly altered, and in the first moment of appeal, had spoken as he felt. He had not forgiven Anne Elliot. She had used him ill, deserted and disappointed him; and worse, she had shewn a feebleness of character in doing so, which his own decided, confident temper could not endure. She had given him up to oblige others. It had been the effect of over-persuasion. It had been weakness and timidity.

He had been most warmly attached to her, and had never seen a woman since whom he thought her equal; but, except from some natural sensation of curiosity, he had no desire of meeting her again. Her power with him was gone for ever.

This passage raised my hopes—I grinned at the book, I all but swooned. But, well, that was it. That was it for him. I was stuck with Anne and the majority of Bath once again.

The occasional smolder would appear—a little poof here and there in the coals of an already banked fire, I suppose? But no. Subplots abound, pesky characters slip in and out and hog the spotlight to prove some social point.

This, I’ve realized, is part of my main beef with Austen: there’s just so much peripheral action. Fine, this is a social novel—but I’m a fan of the focused and the internal doohickey, ya know. That’s me. And cutting back on the social niceties and those pesky peripherals—that would not make this an Austen novel, then.

Another thing: I’m not affected by Austen’s insights on love. Not in here, not in Pride and Prejudice, not in Sense and Sensibility. I scowled when I read, with Anne, Captain Wentworth’s letter:

“I can listen no longer in silence. I must speak to you by such means as are within my reach. You pierce my soul. I am half agony, half hope. Tell me not that I am too late, that such precious feelings are gone for ever. I offer myself to you again with a heart even more your own than when you almost broke it, eight years and a half ago. Dare not say that man forgets sooner than woman, that his love has an earlier death. I have loved none but you. Unjust I may have been, weak and resentful I have been, but never inconstant. You alone have brought me to Bath. For you alone, I think and plan. Have you not seen this? Can you fail to have understood my wishes? I had not waited even these ten days, could I have read your feelings, as I think you must have penetrated mine. I can hardly write. I am every instant hearing something which overpowers me. You sink your voice, but I can distinguish the tones of that voice when they would be lost on others. Too good, too excellent creature! You do us justice, indeed. You do believe that there is true attachment and constancy among men. Believe it to be most fervent, most undeviating, in F. W.”

And though I recognize the poignancy of their relationship’s turn, it was too sudden and unseen for me. A mouthpiece reigniting of their love:

There they exchanged again those feelings and those promises which had once before seemed to secure everything, but which had been followed by so many, many years of division and estrangement. There they returned again into the past, more exquisitely happy, perhaps, in their re-union, than when it had been first projected; more tender, more tried, more fixed in a knowledge of each other’s character, truth, and attachment; more equal to act, more justified in acting.

Why am I not moved? Why don’t I believe any of this? Why am I inclined to think that what many have called the constancy of love is only an arbitrary  narrative technique? Why do I suspect that these two allowed themselves to be persuaded, yet again—this time into loving each other, convincing themselves that yes, this love was finally theirs, and for forever?

_______

I read Persuasion by Jane Austen as part of the Dueling Authors: Austen vs. Dickens Tour hosted by The Classics Circuit. [I was pretty confident I wouldn’t touch Dickens.] The link up there leads you to the updated schedule: for more blogs, more books, more opinions. As always, thank you to Rebecca and our current tour’s guest-host Nicole Bonia. See, although it didn’t work out, at least I’m more certain now with where I stand with Jane Austen.

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16 comments

  1. I love Austen and Persuasion is one of my favorites, but I do agree that Austen always seems to falter after the final declarations of love. The payoff is always a bit disappointing — sort of , “And they lived happily ever after. The end!” I thik she never knew what to do with her characters once she finally got them together. She tells us, rather than shows us as she does in the rest of the. I can only wonder if maybe it’s because she never got married herself.

  2. If you don’t get along with Austen, try John Fowles’s The French Lieutenant’s Woman. Addictive, informative and it was groundbreaking when it was released…

  3. I chose Austen for this circuit too, as I cannot bring myself to give Dickens another shot after A Tale of Two Cities. Sorry you weren’t impressed with Persuasion!

  4. I totally sympathize with you when it comes to Jane Austen … I’ve never been a huge fan. I decided to give her another chance and I also read Persuasion for the Classics Circuit. I actually read the annotated version and it really helped me appreciate it more. I understand what you’re saying about peripheral action though … supposedly it’s important to the plot, but that doesn’t necessarily make it interesting …

  5. While I loved Pride and Prejudice when I first read it last year, your review made me question how Austen seems to tie love up in a neat little bow too quickly. That would be an unfortunate error to happen in all of her books.

  6. I find that the older I get, the more I like Austen. I don’t really know why that should be. Perhaps at a different stage of your life you’ll go back to Austen and love her.

    1. I thought about that — wondered if I could revisit Austen years and years from now, that, perhaps, her tone and her preoccupations will appeal to me when my tone and my preoccupations match hers.

  7. This novel didn’t work for me either — Anne drove me nuts! — but I read it at a bad time. I need to revisit it. After all, I love P&P. But I’m thinking Austen may be just that one novel for me. I’m surprised by how much I’m not in love with the others I’ve read!

  8. Persuasion is my favourite Austen, so if you don’t like that one, I’d say: do yourself a favour and give up on her. Not meant in a bad way.. I just.. I love Persuasion and Pride and Prejudice. I dislike Sense and Sensibility and I never really understood Emma. But yeah.. I can see Austen isn’t for everyone, I truly understand. But for me, that letter?, it is perfection.

    1. No worries, not taken in a bad way at all. You only stated what I’ve been suspecting for the longest time. After all, I’ve long thought Persuasion was “my” Austen. I think, yes, I ought to give her a break. Sigh. I really wanted to like her — oh, I understand why people would — but I can’t seem to feel it. Dang.

  9. I gave up halfway through P&P because I was so bored and couldn’t stand the back-and-forth with Elizabeth and Darcy. But I read Northanger Abbey for this circuit and I LOVED it. It’s shorter, it’s snappier (with less peripheral action, btw), it’s got lots of snark and I actually really love the characters. It was overall a much better Austen experience!

    I don’t want to tell you to keep reading an author you don’t enjoy (since it’s not a CRIME if you don’t like Austen), but maybe if you want to give her one last shot– maybe try Northanger Abbey?

  10. When I was young, I read Austen for the love story. I’ve read P&P to shreds! But now, Austen has taken on a whole new meaning for me. I really appreciate her insight into characters she is mostly likely to have come into contact with, I appreciate her gentle satire and the way her heroines are never perfect. I too have just come from reviewing Persuasion for the Classic Circuit, and have just been talking of these very things.

    I’ve just finished writing my post on Austen’s Persuasion and Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities

  11. I usually hang out with Janeites so it’s interesting to read someone’s meh reaction to Austen. I know so many people who rank Persuasion as their all-time favorite novel and Anne as their favorite heroine, but viva la difference! I think you did a great job of outlining why Austen isn’t for you–she is restrained, reserved, and peripheral, and that’s not everyone’s taste.

    All I can say is at least you didn’t rank Dickens above her!

  12. Jillian ♣ · · Reply

    Aw, sorry you didn’t like it! I just read Persuasion for this tour and loved it, as well as Pride and Prejudice. Last year, I didn’t see the point in Austen. I pretty much felt like you. I’m not sure what changed, except that I read Austen’s biography, by Claire Tomalin, before trying her again…

  13. I stumbled on your blog when I was searching for reviews of “There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbor’s Baby”, I think, although I could very well be wrong. And then I saw it again somewhere else today. We seem to have very different reading tastes, but I like your writing very much and I am bookmarking you, just thought you should know :)

    I am especially pleased by this post. I always feel slightly vindicated when I come across others who dislike Austen. My mother is a huge fan and often forces me to watch the films made from her books and it is torture for me, almost as much as it is when I try to read her books again because I feel pressured by the masses who love her, haha. Thank you for making me feel a little less crazy. or at least a little less alone in my crazy.

  14. [...] Persuasion, by Jane Austen. [...]

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