Saturday, May 21, 2011

The (non-)power of Persuasion

At the beginning of my summer break, I picked up the first book I could find and just began reading. That book was Jane Austen's Persuasion.  So here I am, using my first real blog post to review Persuasion and attempting to persuade you to continue reading my blog (oh-ho, see what I did there?).

My edition of Persuasion includes an introduction by literary professor Susan Ostrov Weisser.  In it, she says: “Just as Jane Austen is the favorite author of many discerning readers, Persuasion is the most highly esteemed novel of many Austenites…[and] has often been seen as the thinking reader’s Pride and Prejudice.”

Well, that bruises my self-esteem.

Pride and Prejudice is one of my favorite novels.  And to think, all this time, I’ve been enjoying the ‘non-thinker’ Austen novel.

I understand what Ms. Weisser is saying.  Persuasion is certainly different from Austen’s earlier novels.  It’s darker, more dreary, and misses out on that “light, bright, and sparkling” prose for which Pride and Prejudice is so famous (though Austen herself used that phrase as a pejorative).  That’s not to say it’s not an enjoyable read – its wit is certainly more cutting, more scathing, and at times more delicious than previous Austen novels.  But, the overall product just doesn’t seem as polished to me. And yes, I'm aware that this makes me a bad Austenite; don't worry, I'm working through this.

Persuasion was written before Austen’s death, and scholars believe she did not have the time to carefully revise her work as was her usual way before submitting for publication.  I can tell.  While Persuasion is a nice read, its pace is much slower than earlier works, and a lot of the action takes place off-page, so to speak. This makes for an anti-climactic read.

For those who have never read Persuasion, a brief summary is in order: Anne Elliot is the middle child of Sir Walter Elliot, a pompous, vain man whose self-perception of grandeur could span the Pacific ocean three times over.  With his equally vain daughter, Elizabeth, Sir Walter overspends his income, and is forced to undergo the degrading process of letting his manor out.  Walter and Elizabeth care little for Anne, who is just a sad middle child, and often forgotten by her family.  The youngest sister, Mary, rounds out the Elliot family, and everyone save for Anne is fodder for Austen’s biting critique of 19th century English social class structure.

The reader learns that Anne was formerly engaged to a handsome Captain Wentworth.  The engagement was broken off, however, after Anne was persuaded by good family friend Lady Russell that Wentworth was too poor for Anne to marry.  To cut a long summary short, eight years later, Anne still loves Wentworth and by chance, he comes back into her life.  The novel follows Anne as she navigates through dealing with these feelings and Wentworth's seeming lack of interest in her.

That summary doesn’t do the book justice, and I realize I'm leaving a lot out, but if you really want to know the whole of it, well, here you go. To say that it’s difficult to summarize succinctly because this is one of Austen’s more complex novels is apt – there are more characters and more strands of plot in Persuasion than any other Austen novel that I can recall. But let's look at the crux of the novel, the driving force of the narrative: Anne's relationship with Wentworth.

Simply put, Persuasion’s biggest flaw is its romance – unlike Darcy and Elizabeth, or Emma and George Knightley, Anne and Wentworth hardly interact in the text.  Austen doesn’t devote much dialogue for them to share, instead having an omniscient narrator summarize what they say to one another.  There’s no pop, no sizzle – it’s just boring.

Furthermore, the reader never really gets to know Wentworth.  We learn that he’s now a self-made rich man, and very kind and gentlemanly and all that jazz.  But we don’t see his passions, his interests, even his faults.  He’s like a shiny Ken doll that we have to take for granted is totally awesome and a perfect fit for our Barbie even though we’re not allowed to take him out of the box.  Wentworth just isn't as well rounded or interesting as previous Austen heroes.

This really weakens the romance, and the book.  What we know of Wentworth comes primarily from Anne.  When Anne realizes Wentworth still loves her because he acts strangely when with her at an opera towards the end of the novel, we just have to take for granted that what Anne is saying is right – because we don’t know the character well enough to contradict her.  And when Wentworth and Anne finally do reconnect, not only is it two chapters before the end of the book, Austen devotes very little dialogue to the moment, and the result is unsatisfactory.

As a couple, Anne and Wentworth are just boring.  Which is a shame, because Anne is pretty awesome.  Anne is genteel and reserved and a far cry from Elizabeth Bennet, but she’s an endearing character.  The reader really does feel bad for Anne – she was convinced to break up with her fianc√©, her family pretty much always ignores her or thinks her not worth mentioning, her fianc√© comes back and seems to be totally uninterested in her, and she’s constantly used and abused.  She's not an unlikeable character, and that makes it all the more disappointing when her romance feels so lacking.

We know that Anne’s a very intelligent, well read woman, too; she quotes Byron like there’s none other.  Which makes it a shame that the most invigorated we see Anne is when she’s conversing with another male that’s not Wentworth, a Captain Benwick.  Anne isn’t a boring character – she just doesn’t really have chemistry with Wentworth.

Persuasion’s main villain, Mr. Elliot, Anne’s cousin, also lacks the sting of P&P's Wickham or Sense and Sensibility's Willoughby.  Like Wentworth, all of Mr. Elliot's villainy takes place outside of the text, and we never really feel repulsed by him.  We learn about his misdeeds through a third party, the unfortunate Mrs. Smith, but after this, he never really does anything on-screen that makes us loathe him.  What we do see, a letter from him disparaging the Elliot family - mainly the patriarch, Walter - would be worse if the reader were actually supposed to like Sir Walter.  As it stands, Sir Walter Elliot is a pompous ass, so while the reader understands that Anne is a good daughter and wants to defend her father against this attack, we kind of want to side with Mr. Elliot on this one.

However, the novel really shines when it focuses on its supporting cast.  Mary Elliot, the youngest sister, is a riot and Austen’s resident lady-ditz.  The amount of hysteria and sheer ridiculousness Mary exudes puts Mrs. Bennet to shame – it’s glorious.  Austen very effectively uses Mary, along with Walter and Elizabeth, to attack the upper-class and the conflated, overblown notions of superiority of the wealthy.

This is where the book is enjoyable.  Austen is clearly enjoying herself when she ruthlessly mocks the pseudo-nobility that is the Elliot clan.  And we do to.  At least, I did.  Unlike other novels, Austen firmly embraces the self-made middle class, and her social critique is spot on (and hilarious).  This is where Persuasion is worth reading.

Overall, I wouldn’t say Persuasion is bad – it's Austen’s attempt at a more mature and dark novel.  Perhaps if she had more time, the writing would be tighter, and the romance, more polished.  Perhaps, with time and a second read-through, I'll appreciate it more than I do now. As it stands, its decent, and at times even wonderful, but I’ll take my Pride and Prejudice and 'non-think' my way through it any day of the week.

2 comments:

  1. So profesh! I can't wait to see more up here. I once read half of this book, and I agree it was pretty dry and the action was lacking.

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  2. Well, good to know you agree with my assessment. ;-)

    ReplyDelete