Many of you may know that I have always wavered a little in reading or wanting to read this classics. In my head this conjures up English Literature lessons in school being forced to read the same sections of a book over and over and over, analysing it to death and taking all the fun out for reading. This has lead me to having missed out on many a ‘canon’ author including Jane Austen, and people said a small collection of her early work didn’t count, so when I embarked, with AJ Reads, upon the idea of Classically Challenged she was the first author I wanted to try and thanks to you, and your votes, I did so with ‘Persuasion’. Did it persuade me to read anything else by her though?
Oxford University Press, paperback, 1817 (2008 edition), fiction, 304 pages, kindly sent by the publishers
If they had had the expression ‘middle child syndrome’ in the early 1800’s then I think Anne Elliot, the heroine of ‘Persuasion’, would be a prime example of someone who could suffer it, though being a heroine of course she doesn’t. She has a vain and wealth obsessed father and sisters, elder unmarried Elizabeth and younger married Mary, and so really she is overlooked by most of her family. Fortunately she does have the attention of neighbouring Lady Russell who was her sadly deceased mother’s best friend. However Sir Walter Elliot though obsessed with his position in life and wealth, is lacking in how to keep or make the right amount of money and so has to rent his estate, Kellynch-hall out which in doing so brings a former, rather fortunately unknown, engagement, Captain Wentworth, of Anne’s younger years back into her life and also a whole host of people that change her perception of what life can be and what can indeed be made of it.
I have to say that I really, really enjoyed ‘Persuasion’. I will happily admit that I found the first page to be one of the most mind numbing and off putting pieces of fiction that I have read in some time (which is interestingly the same thing, only for fifty more, that has stopped me getting anywhere with ‘Pride and Prejudice’) as Sir Walter reads about an almost encyclopaedic history of himself and all its pomp, which reads a little woodenly. Yet, just another page on I was suddenly hit with a beaming smile as the wit I had heard Jane Austen has, but didn’t believe she did, smacked me round the chops as Sir Walter’s pomp, causes him to look at everyone else around him, and I found it very funny.
“It sometimes happens, that a woman is handsomer at twenty-nine than she was ten years before; and, generally speaking, if there has been neither ill health nor anxiety, it is a time of life at which scarcely any charm is lost. It was so with Elizabeth; still the same handsome Miss Elliot that she had begun to be thirteen years ago; and Sir Walter might be excused, therefore, in forgetting her age, or, at least, be deemed only half a fool, for thinking himself and Elizabeth as blooming as ever, amidst the wreck of good looks of everybody else; for he could plainly see how old the rest of his family and acquaintance were growing. Anne haggard, Mary coarse, every face in the neighbourhood worsting; and the rapid increase of the crow’s foot about Lady Russell’s temples had long been a distress to him.”
From this point in the book was honestly a real joy. I felt that I actually ‘got’ Jane Austen and the more I read on the more and more I realised that my preconceptions of her were way off the mark. I had imagined this would all be rather twee and sentimental but have the happy ending I was expecting. Here I must say I did guess the ending but firstly I loved the twists that went on throughout and secondly doesn’t the ending have a dark ominous overtone? What I actually got was a very witty, often a little darkly so, and intelligent and wryly perceptive author who clearly watched and observed and then, in wonderful prose – though it took me a little while to get into the Olde English, writes it almost to a level of pastiche, yet so convincing it never goes too far, for the reader to enjoy.
I must add here that I am never ever letting my editor moan at me about how much I over use comma’s. I shall simply say ‘have you read Jane Austen?’ and leave it at that. I liked the fact we had this in common and as I read on I became more and more sure that had I sat with her, people watching over a pot of Earl Grey tea, I would have very much enjoyed her company and possibly laughed quite a lot as I did throughout the book. I am not sure I was always meant to find everything as hilarious as I did, Louisa’s fall in particular, but I giggled, occasionally wickedly a lot, sometimes at the most subtle of things.
“’There we differ, Mary’ said Anne. ‘I am sure Lady Russell would like him. I think she would be so much pleased with his mind, that she would very soon see no deficiency in his manner.’
‘So do I, Anne’ said Charles. ‘I am sure Lady Russell would like him. He is just Lady Russell’s sort. Give him a book, and he will read all day long.’
‘Yes, that he will!’ exclaimed Mary, tauntingly. ‘He will sit poring over his book, and not know when a person speaks to him, or when one drops one’s scissors, or anything that happens. Do you think Lady Russell would like that?’”
The other aspect of her writing is how much of an insight it gives into the social state of the country at the time and indeed the plight of women. Firstly there is the fact that all women seem to be failures if they do not marry ‘up’ or, heaven forbid, marry at all. No wonder Anne is disproved of when she turns down Charles, who Mary then marries (awkward much?) and isn’t sure the debonair and seemingly wealthy Mr Elliot is right for her. More interesting for me was the cases of Miss Smith, who I really loved and wanted to look after, illustrated the plight of a widowed woman of no wealth and at the other end of the spectrum was the rather matriarchal Lady Russell who seemed to have it so easy, well apart from the loss of her husband that is. I found this all rather fascinating, the shock of Anne wanting to associate with a woman who couldn’t even afford a servant rather hit me, and also highlighted what a bunch of pompous pests she unfortunately was related to.
This does bring me to my only slight qualm with the book and Austen’s writing. Here we go, get ready for everyone who is sat thinking ‘see we knew you would like her and find her faultless’ to get a little more annoyed, but I want to be honest. In some of the characters, having seen so many adaptations of Pride and Prejudice, whilst not having read it I know, I felt that I had seen them before. There were a few Mrs Bennett’s and indeed a rather Wickham like character which whilst never stopped me enjoying ‘Persuasion’, indeed all the ‘vexing’ is wonderful, did spoil one twist in the tale alas. It made me wonder if all her novels have the same set characters and aim to achieve the same moralistic, yet also rather fairytale like, ends. I shall have to read more to make up my mind.
If you haven’t guessed already I was quite smitten with ‘Persuasion’ and also with its author. I got a whole lot more than I bargained for and indeed had my misconceptions of Austen and her writing have been fully highlighted and I see the error of my assumptions. If all of her novels contain this level of observance, wonderful characters be they good or bad, illustration of the human condition (and amazingly people still behave like this, maybe why it resonates to this day), emotion, humour and wry commentary I could become a hardened fan.
I will definitely be reading much more of Jane Austen’s work in the future, so if you have any recommendations for the next port of call do let me know, in the meantime though I am really excited about reading the rest of the Classically Challenged titles (next is ‘The Warden’ by Anthony Trollope) with AJ, whose thoughts on ‘Persuasion’ will be live here in due course, over the next few months. For now though… what are your thoughts on ‘Persuasion’?
P.S I am so sorry this post is so lengthy, the book gave me so much to write about.