I 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.