Persuasion (reread)

persuasionI first read Persuasion around 15 years ago, when I was in college, and for some reason it just didn’t captivate me the way Austen’s work usually does. However, since then, I’ve seen a couple of film adaptations and come to see the beauty of the story, so I’ve been meaning to revisit the novel. My upcoming vacation in England, which will include a day trip to Bath, where much of the story takes place, led me to move the reread to the top of my reading list.

Persuasion tells a more mature story than Austen’s other novels. Austen’s other novels dwell on the first flush of a new love and the anticipation of a life together, but Persuasion is about a long-standing love and regret for time lost. At 27, Anne Elliot is older than most of Austen’s heroines. She has received and turned down two marriage proposals. Now, she is past her prime and generally ignored by her family unless they need her to do something for them. When Frederick Wentworth, one of her former suitors and the one man she truly loved, returns to her neighborhood, she watches as he pays his attentions to two young, lively neighbors, always wishing for his happiness but secretly hoping for a place in his heart.

This novel demonstrates the power of the tiniest movement between lovers. A flick of the eye or a turn of the head can be pregnant with meaning. Anne scrutinizes every move that Captain Wentworth makes and every word that he says. Any woman who has had a crush knows this experience. When the object of our affection is in the room, can we ever be fully aware of anything else? Austen’s ability to capture the tension inherent in encounters between potential lovers is, I think, one of the things that makes her novels so popular today. Even knowing how the novel would end, I felt Anne’s tension. That’s how good the writing is.

Austen’s wit is fully employed in Persuasion, a fact I think I missed in my first reading because I read this for the first time immediately after the more obviously funny Northanger Abbey. This time I saw the biting humor in Austen’s depictions of Anne’s family. There’s a brilliant sort of cattiness in her descriptions. Here, for example, is her description of Anne’s father, Sir Walter:

Vanity was the beginning and end of Sir Walter’s Elliot’s character; vanity of person and of situation. He had been remarkably handsome in his youth; and, at fifty-four, was still a very fine man. Few women could think more of their personal appearance than he did; nor could the valet of any newmade lord be more delighted with the place he held in society. He considered the blessing of beauty as inferior only to the blessing of a baronetcy; and the Sir Walter Elliot, who united these gifts, was the constant object of his warmest respect and devotion.

Persuasion was definitely a better read the second time around. Perhaps I needed some life experience to really get it, but I’m so glad I gave it another chance.

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11 Responses to Persuasion (reread)

  1. CB James says:

    I think people make the mistake of asking teenagers to read Jane Austen. I think you have to be a little more worldly to really get her.

    I remember enjoying Persuasion but thinking it wasn’t really all that great. Until the heroine gets that letter from the Captian and, though he never comes right out and says it, we realize that he truly loves her.

    I was covered in goosebumps when I read that and I’ve been a devoted fan ever since.

  2. Laurel Ann says:

    “Austen’s ability to capture the tension inherent in encounters between potential lovers is, I think, one of the things that makes her novels so popular today.”

    Great observation! I totally agree. I appreciated Persuasion more in later years. It is too subtle for young ones.

    Cheers, Laurel Ann

  3. Nicola says:

    I’m going to re-read Persuasion, too. I like the way Austen has us think that Anne has ‘lost her bloom’ (at only 27!) but when she is admired by the young man on the Cobb we see what Wentworth sees. Enjoy your trip to Bath – Northanger Abbey would be another good choice to read in Bath – it’s a beautiful city.

  4. Jenny says:

    Persuasion is my second favorite Austen (after Pride and Prejudice, and edging Sense & Sensibility into third place.) I love Anne as a heroine — she makes it so clear how little control women had over their circumstances, but how much over their minds and reactions. And there’s extra charm, for me, in Wentworth as a Navy man, since I’m such an O’Brian fan — it’s like the “home front” of the Aubrey-Maturin novels!

  5. Steph says:

    Persuasion & Mansfield Park are the two Austens that I haven’t read, mostly because I like knowing there are still a few of her works out there that I can still discover. I saw a movie adaptation of Persuasion many years ago that I thought was quite dull, but so many people consider it to be one of Austen’s best that I really do think it will be the next book of hers that I do read.

    When you’re in Bath, you should stop by the Jane Austen Centre – it has a great gift shop and is a wonderful tribute to all things Jane!

  6. adevotedreader says:

    It’s funny I loved Persuasion when I first read it but needed a re-read of Northanger Abbey to convince me of its merits. Persuasion is probably my equal favourite Austen novel (the other is Emma), so I’m glad you found it good second time round.

  7. Teresa says:

    C.B. I first encountered Austen in college. I think I would have enjoyed P&P in high school, and maybe Emma, but the others, not so much. And yes! the letter-writing scene kills me–especially on a second read, knowing what he’s writing.

    Laurel Ann: This is definitely more subtle than some of her other work, but boy that tension—I think it’s more palpable her than in her other work. Maybe it’s because the lovers know each other so well already.

    Nicola: It’s so wonderful to see Anne blossom into what she was all along, but that no one saw, and she almost forgot herself.

    Jenny: P&P is my favorite, too, but I think the rest are all tied for second place.

    Steph: I know what you mean about liking having more Austen to read. That’s why it took me a long time to read Mansfield Park. The drama in this story is a lot less, um, dramatic than in some of her other books, but it’s there. And I will almost certainly visit the Jane Austen Centre in Bath; my Mom is going with me, and she’s also a fan, so she wouldn’t let me miss it even if I wanted to. :-)

    adevotedreader: I think Northanger Abbey caught my fancy so easily because I read it as part of a Gothic novel class in which we read some of the books mentioned (Udolpho, The Monk). I had spent the semester hearing people treat these books as very, very serious literature with very, very deep meaning, and I really needed to see a send-up of the genre.

  8. Persuasion is my favourite Austen, always has been, even though as a teenager I was momentarily seduced away by Mr Darcy. But I returned. Each time I read it, I am unable to put it down as I Want to Know What Happens even though I know as I have read it dozens of times. It is pure genius the way this tension, which you have highlighted, keeps the reader on their toes. And who can fail to be moved by Wentworth’s letter:

    “You pierce my soul. I am half agony half hope. Tell me that I am not too late, that such precious feelings are gone for ever. I offer myself to you again with a heart even more than your own than when you almost broke it eight years ago. Dare not say that man forgets sooner than woman, that his love has an earlier death. I have loved none but you…”

    Totally irrestible. From where in jane did passionate romantic love come from? Simply wonderful.

  9. JaneGS says:

    So glad that you gave Persuasion a second chance since the novel itself is all about second chances :)

    I love and admire Anne Eliot, and I’m with Louisa Musgrove in her admiration for the men of the navy, at least as represented by those who show up in this wonderful novel.

    I also enjoy how love and happiness will restore bloom to a woman’s complexion, even if she is so severely aged as to be 28.

    >Even knowing how the novel would end, I felt Anne’s tension.

    No kidding. No matter how many times I read this book, I feel my jaw clench with tension.

  10. Teresa says:

    Elaine: Oh, that letter. It just kills me. Wentworth definitely has something going for him, although I’m a Darcy women through and through (and have been since long before Colin Firth donned a wet shirt–the wet shirt simply enhances the image).

    JaneGS: Isn’t it amazing how the best books can keep you in suspense even after multiple readings.

  11. Pingback: Advent with Austen: Persuasion by Jane Austen « The Sleepless Reader

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