Persuasion

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Persuasion, Jane Austen, 1818

Here it is, the last Jane Austen novel on the list.  Persuasion is the last book that Jane Austen wrote.  It was published posthumously very shortly after her death at age 41.  Some scholars consider it her most autobiographical book, because the love interest is a sailor, just like Jane’s real life love interest.  Our leading lady, Anne Elliot, is the younger daughter of an aristocrat who possesses more land and ostentatious pride than sense.  Anne, however, is a mellow, obedient, sensible young woman who tries to rein in her father and sister’s excessive spending. She fails because those swine don’t appreciate her pearls of wisdom or her pearlescent personality for that matter.  Anne is mortified by her relation’s lack of grace.  They are imperious and awkward socially, and their extreme sense of entitlement prevents them from doing anything to prevent their financial ruin.  Only Lady Russel, the bosom companion of Anne’s deceased mother, recognizes Anne’s true value.

Persuasion holds no surprises for the Jane Austen fan.  It contains the typical Austen elements:

  • the frivolous relatives of Pride and Prejudice and Mansfield Park paired with an obedient, sensible, long-suffering daughter; Jane and Fanny respectively and Elinor from Sense and Sensibility.
  •  the silly, flirtatious, social-climbing rivals of S+S, P+P and Mansfield.
  • the disposal of said rivals in unexpected marriages.
  • the delayed romance of every Austen novel except Northanger Abbey.
  • the chronic misunderstanding between lovers caused by social conventions that require women in particular to be extremely reserved.
  • a moral about the consequences of abstract elements of human nature.

The abstract element in question is persuasion or being persuadable.  At a tender age, Anne allows Lady Russel and her father to dissuade her from marrying Captain Frank Wentworth, a dashing young sailor.  They object to Wentworth’s lack of name or fortune.  Anne would have married him for love and with hope and faith that he would improve his circumstances by distinguishing himself in the Royal Navy.  He does earn fame and fortune and turns up in Anne’s part of the country again.  Tension ensues.

Anne is a serene character and the tone of Persuasion is correspondingly tranquil.  I found it a bit dull at first.  Austen spends a good while setting up the Elliot family dynamic and describing the personalities found in their neighborhood before the men arrive.  This being said, I was happy with the pacing overall.  The novel has a maturity not found in Austen’s earlier work in terms of tone, material, plot and even character.  Anne is the only Austen heroine past her prime marrying off years.

I suppose I should summarize my feelings about Jane Austen now.  That’s a large unwieldy task, though.  I reviewed all six of her novels on this blog, so if you want my thoughts on her, they are available.  Instead here is my ranking of her books from my favorite to my least favorite:

Pride and Prejudice

Northanger Abbey

Persuasion

Emma

Sense and Sensibility

Mansfield Park

 

You might like Persuasion if:

  • you love Austen.
  • you are ready for a heroine who is out of her teens.
  • you like a maritime setting.

You might not like Persuasion if:

  • you are bored of/by Austen.

Final thoughts: I liked it.

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Northanger Abbey

Northanger Abbey, Jane Austen

Northanger Abbey, Jane Austen, 1817

Catherine Morland starts life as a plain, tomboyish child not at all suited to the life of a romantic heroine.  Nevertheless, she blossoms into a not unattractive young woman with a “mind about as ignorant and uninformed as the female mind at seventeen usually is.”  In this precarious state of naiveté she sets off for Bath to be introduced to society.  Sounds like every single previous novel with a female main character, huh?  Well, yes, excepting Austen’s other books.  The most common premise for early English novels is the young woman’s first season in town, an excellent setting in which to portray the corrupting and confusing influence of society on the female character.  Austen typically breaks away from this model to focus on familial relationships, typically in a rural setting.  Think about it, all of Austen’s other characters have experience in society prior to the time when Austen begins chronicling their stories.  In Northanger Abbey she uses this more common premise in order to parody other novelists.

When Catherine arrives in Bath she starts reading The Mysteries of Udolpho, my least favorite book in the history of literature!  Austen continually contrasts her relatively mundane and realistic character, setting and plot with the exaggerated romanticism of Udolpho and other Gothic literature.  Catherine becomes so obsessed with Udolpho that she interprets her surroundings as if they were part of a Gothic mystery.  She expects danger at every turn.  She even begins to suspect that the father of the young man she admires is a villain on par with Montoni of Udolpho.  Her absurd fantasies almost ruin her chances with the young man in question.

Northanger Abbey is not Jane Austen’s most popular novel, probably because the narrative relies on knowledge of a book that most modern readers have not read.  I found Northanger Abbey simply delightful.  The element of satire adds complexity and extra humor to Austen’s work.  It is really funny to see a literary heroine get so swept up by the ideas and ideals of another novel that she almost ruins the plot of her own book.  The constant contrast between the Gothic literary tradition and Austen’s own literary style serves to highlight Austen’s merit.  I love that she interrupts her narrative to give a spirited defense of the novel form.  In Austen’s time it was perfectly acceptable for a young lady to read poetry, but novels were considered trifling and perhaps even dangerous.  She defends Catherine’s habit of reading novels by saying “if the heroine of one novel be not patronized by the heroine of another, from whom can she expect protection and regard?”  A bit rich, considering that Austen is raking fellow lady novelist Ann Radcliffe over the coals, but a cute statement nonetheless.

Northanger Abbey stands out to me, because in it Austen comes closest to social commentary.  In her other novels she delineates the flaws in her characters and explains how their upbringing allowed their undesirable traits to emerge and flourish.  The blame falls soundly on the parents every time.  Emma is vain and self-important, because her father is over-indulgent.  Lydia Bennet is silly and boy-crazy, because her mother is silly and boy-crazy.  Fanny is unassuming, because she is treated as a second class member of her own family.  Austen does not aim her arrows directly at the effete, indulgent Regency society very often, but in Nothanger Abbey she constructs the argument (if you look for it) that Catherine is so very silly, because social norms prevent her from accumulating any wisdom.  Well, that might be a bit of a stretch, but she fairly clearly demonstrates that the social practice of “retirement from the world” for young women, makes them silly.

Thank goodness an author finally makes that connection.  All the naïve, bumbling Charlotte Temples, Evelinas and Catherines get into trouble, because they have no experience of the world. Early English novelists just loved to show how dangerous entering society is for a young woman.  Well, duh!  If you were shut away from people for your entire youth, it would be dangerous to send you to a debutante ball.  People have to learn how to interpret human behavior.  If women are locked away from men, they will have no idea who is a decent, reasonable person and who is philanderer or potential murderer.  It’s not shocking that Catherine can’t tell fiction from reality.  There’s almost no reality in her life.  Experience makes humans wise and she has had no experiences.  She comes off as incredibly foolish, but is it really surprising that someone who was only allowed to experience the world through books would interpret their surroundings as if they were the setting of a novel?  I think not.

You might like Northanger Abbey if:

  • you have read Mysteries of Udolpho or at least one Gothic novel written before 1820.
  • you love Jane Austen.
  • you like satire.
  • you like meta-fiction.

You might not like Northanger Abbey if:

  • you haven’t read Mysteries of Udolpho or at least one Gothic novel written before 1820.
  • you just can’t stand it when the author inserts her own voice and opinions into the narrative.  I must insert my voice here to give the opinion that readers everywhere should ditch this particular pet peeve.

Final thoughts: Northanger Abbey is an atypical Austen novel, which I like.  I rank it second after Pride and Prejudice. 

Emma

Emma and Harriet

Emma and Harriet

Emma, Jane Austen, 1815

I have three more Jane Austen books to review and I’m running out of deep thoughts to share about this author.  This post is going to be brief.  As far as Austen’s oeuvre Emma is solidly middle of the road.  The characters are better developed than in Sense and Sensibility, but not as vivid as in Pride and Prejudice.  The dialogue and plot are both more engaging than Mansfield Park, but not nearly so tight and exciting as P+P.

Austen spends a lot of time enumerating and illuminating her characters’ flaws.  Fortunately for her leading ladies they inevitably realize the error of their ways in time to win back the hearts of their beloveds.  Emma has more personality defects than her compatriots, including a massive ego that slows down her self-reflection and self-improvement.  Hence, Emma is one of Austen’s longest novels.

Emma "fixing" Harriet

Emma “fixing” Harriet

My favorite thing about Emma is “Clueless.”  Still holds up after all these years.  Reimagining frivolous, useless Regency aristocrats as 90s Beverly Hills teens works so well.  The changes to the central love story make it more adorable and less. . .creepy.  By turning the male lead into Cher’s step-brother the writers retained the somewhat familial relationship between the lovers, but decreased the age difference.  The love between Emma and Mr. Knightley is bizarre.  Mr. Knightly is something of an uncle to Emma.  He is sixteen years older, has known her since she was very young and openly admits to trying to mold her character.  He constantly criticizes and lectures her.  Essentially, he has been raising her in lieu of her dead mother and over-indulgent father.  Then she grows up to be a hottie and he decides to marry her.  Gross.  The union doesn’t make sense for either partner.  Knightley shouldn’t want to marry her, because she has a crappy personality.  In his own words “she will never submit to anything requiring industry and patience.”  Who wouldn’t want a lazy, impatient wife?  Emma shouldn’t want to marry him, because he will clearly make a terrible father given that he raised her and she did not turn out well.

You might like Emma if:

  • what you enjoy about Austen is her sharp-witted critiquing of her characters.

You might not like Emma if:

  • what you like about Austen is romance.

 

Final thoughts: Emma, the character, is an annoying, self-righteous, lazy, useless busybody, which is what Austen intended.  She didn’t necessarily want her readers to like Emma or to root for her romance with Mr. Knightley.  That’s a perfectly valid choice for an author to make.  For me, that choice makes Emma, the book, less lovable than certain other works by Austen.  Emma is tedious and Emma is tedious.  It’s not bad, it’s just not very fun.