I didn’t enjoy the classics we studied at school in English literature which were mainly Dickens and thought that I couldn’t understand older books so, although I was an avid reader in my teenage years, I stuck to more recently published books (although I had a soft spot for Kipling). In my sixth form years, however, our school put on a series of classes outside the A-level curriculum to widen our understanding and give us an insight into things we may not otherwise have accessed – I wonder if schools still do such things ? I can’t remember everything that was offered but our German teacher shared about her life in Berlin at the end of war, one teacher shared with us her experiences of being blind and the gadgets she used to cope more easily, our geography teacher shared information about ice ages and how the climate had changed over the centuries from historical records, and our headteacher ran a session about how a novel is constructed. As I was not doing English Literature A level (too much Dickens in it) I attended this session – the book that was used as an example for the talk was Persuasion by Jane Austen – this introduction to the works of Jane Austen changed my reading life.
I have read Persuasion many times since because it is now firmly established as one of my favourite books ever. I have read all the rest of Jane Austen’s novels and will acknowledge that Pride and Prejudice is the funniest and I have a soft spot for Sense and Sensibility but I am firmly of the opinion that Persuasion is the best thing she ever wrote and it comes near, in my opinion, to being the perfect novel. This time I listened to the book on audio which was read beautifully by Juliet Stevenson.
Persuasion is a romance. It is, in fact, what we would call today a second chance romance. Anne Elliot, our heroine, had the opportunity in the past to marry Frederick Wentworth, a young sailor, but was persuaded against it by people who had her best interests at heart and thought that she could do much better for herself than a penniless sailor with few expectations. Now Anne is older and there is little chance of her making a match so she becomes her family’s “go to” person for disasters and illnesses. She travels around friends and family helping out when needed, providing companionship and with her life dictated and curtailed by others – a situation the author knew only too well as she too was a spinster. Anne is not unhappy but you see clearly that she is overlooked by her friends and family, even those who are fond of her. She is useful but not ever wanted for herself.
As Anne’s father, Sir Walter, finds himself in straitened circumstances he has to rent out his home and move to lodgings in Bath to save money. The new tenants of the property are related to Frederick, now Captain Wentworth, who is now a rich and successful sailor and who has never married. Slowly, without ever talking to each other of it, Anne and Frederick’s love begins to rekindle. It is glorious to watch him start to appreciate Anne’s virtues and to accept her as a worthy person. It is lovely to watch Anne begin to blossom and to have hope. It is amusing to watch the relationship grow amongst the restrictions and conventions of the society in which they move. The ending, as befits a romance, is very satisfactory.
This is, in my opinion, a very well-crafted book with lots going on and some very interesting characters. Anne and Frederick steadily make their way through the problems that others create and events that they do not control. They each imagine that the other has given their love elsewhere and have to endure. They realise that they have a shared view of life and love which is not held by family and friends. The author is amusing and sarcastic in places and the book is full of sly observations about how people behave.
I am very glad that I came to Jane Austen with no expectations and no baggage. I’ve been reading this book for over forty years now and I am still not tired of it.