Thursday, 23 April 1998

Jane Austen: Persuasion (1818)

Edition: Penguin
Review number: 31

Persuasion is the shortest of Jane Austen's completed novels, and is famous for being one in which nothing happens. In some ways, it doesn't feel as much a finished work of art as some of the others; there are parts which are far more fully written than others - some events are glossed over, other similar ones gone into in detail.

Anne Elliott is another Jane Austen heroine with intelligence but from an incredibly stupid family. Her father and eldest sister are obsessed with the status of the family, and they are no judges of personality at all.

The plot of the book is simply that of the return of a formerly rejected lover (Captain Wentworth) after many years, causing Anne to realise that she had made a great mistake in not accepting him at the time. This would have been a match which would have incensed her family, as he was a penniless sailor, and she the daughter of a (spendthrift) baronet. The book is the story of the realisation dawning, and then the hope that he will not now be indifferent to her.

As usual with Jane Austen, the characters are well drawn, though those you dislike are slightly more caricatures than usual. I feel reasonably sure that she would have wanted to revise this book again, though I'm glad to be able to read it.

1 comment:

Simon McLeish said...

Update on re-reading in May 2012: I'm surprised by how much I missed from my reading thirteen years ago (which would have been my third reading of Persuasion). There is rather more substance to the novel than my review suggests, even if there are aspects I feel make it less than the best of Austen's novels.

The title is massively important, as it is in the others of Austen's novels named after abstracts (Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice). In every chapter, some form of persuasion is made or discussed, whether it is the work done by various people to persuade the Elliot family to let their ancestral home and stay in Bath, or to get Anne to take sides in arguments between her sister and brother in law. And of course it is the mainspring of the plot, as the past rejection of Captain Wentworth was due to the persuasion of Anne's friend and mentor Lady Russell, who thought it was a bad match on worldly grounds.

And even though very little happens, it is a dense novel about the gradual changes that persuasion works on several of the characters.

What is there not to like about it? Well, the ending is rather abrupt. Unlike the novels already mentioned, Persuasion originally appeared in two volumes rather than three, but it still reads as though the last three or four chapters could have been the basis for a whole third part. William Wentworth, the distant cousin who is to inherit the Elliot baronetcy, is almost too like Pride and Prejudice's Wickham, as an outwardly attractive man revealed to be dishonourable and shallow. And there is another issue shared with Pride and Prejudice, which is that Anne is a remarkably sensible woman given how silly all her immediate family are.

But it is still an Austen novel, and as a writer she is certainly in the top five English novelists of all.