Persuasion

1

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.

Mansfield Park

Fanny Price, Jane Austen

Mansfield Park, Jane Austen, 1814

Mansfield Park follows the early life of Fanny Price, a young girl whose mother has made an imprudent marriage and consequently ended up with too many children and not enough money.  Fanny’s rich aunt and uncle decide to help her mother by bringing Fanny to live with them.  They instantly begin a campaign to prevent Fanny from thinking of herself as the social equal of their own daughters.  Hence, she grows into an unassuming young lady with a distinct lack of self-confidence.  Then, you know, all the young ladies and gentlemen must figure out whom to marry.

I have said it before, but it bears repeating, I have a hard time relating to the circumstances that Austen’s characters inhabit.  “First World Problems” doesn’t begin to cover how trivial their problems are.  The most dramatic moment of the first half of Mansfield Park occurs when Fanny gets a headache.  Really.  In complete disregard of her congenitally weak constitution, Fanny’s aunt sends her out to cut roses in the midday sun.  Consequently, Fanny feels a somewhat unpleasant sensation in her head.  Her cousin Edward gets enraged at the aunt’s lack of consideration.  Words are exchanged.  Not so much sharp words as slightly pointed words.  That’s it.  That’s pretty much the most heated exchange in the whole novel.  I’m sorry, but a problem that can be solved by taking a quick nap doesn’t register as a problem to me.

Fanny Price, Jane austen

Throughout her novels Austen often takes care to establish that her characters’ behavior is a product of their environment and the way they are treated by those around them.  Fanny is an unassuming wallflower, because she was brought up by an aunt and uncle determined to keep her in her place by constantly reminding her of her inferior station relative to their own daughters.  Her aunt, Mrs. Bertram is indolent, because as a wealthy aristocrat very little is required of her.  Fanny’s rival, Miss Crawford, has a disdain for the clergy and a lack of respect for certain family members that are attributed to her upbringing by a crude uncle and bitter aunt.  To give credit where credit is due, Jane Austen does a fantastic job of establishing the social factors that influence the development of human understanding.  (By the way, “understanding” was used in this time to mean intelligence and method of relating to the world.)  In itself that is a terrific accomplishment.  However, I would love to see a character transcend those influences.  Yes, it is somewhat rare for an individual to reach beyond the limitations of their upbringing, but it does happen and I would love to see more of that grit and defiance in Austen.  Imagine that IN SPITE of her family’s constant reminders of her inferiority, Fanny developed a sense of self-worth independent of the opinions of others.  IN SPITE of their continual derision, she becomes an assertive, young woman with a vibrant personality.  Imagine that IN SPITE of the judgmental attitudes of her aunt and uncle Miss Crawford becomes a compassionate woman who judges others by their actions and not their membership in a given group.  For me to love a Jane Austen novel or character I need to see a little more IN SPITE.  That’s why Elizabeth Bennet of Pride and Prejudice is the best of Austen’s heroines.  There’s a lot of in spite in Lizzy.

Mansfield Park is my least favorite of Austen’s oeuvre.  It’s too long.  Fanny is too dull.  Too many boring conversations are included.  Weirdly, the romance that is ostensibly the driving concern of the novel is confined to a few brief paragraphs at the end of the book.  Why tell us so much about shrubbery and not give the lovers any dialogue, Austen?  Why?

Here’s a creepy quote:

“Loving, guiding, protecting her, as he had been doing ever since her being ten years old,her mind in so great a degree formed by his care, and her comfort depending on his kindness, an object to him of such close and peculiar interest, dearer by all his importance to her than any one else at Mansfield, what was there now to add, but that he should learn to prefer soft light eyes to sparkling dark ones.”

There’s an element of “he loves her because he raised her himself and made her in his image” in this quote that I’ll discuss further in my review of Emma.

You might like Mansfield Park if:

  • you are an Austen enthusiast.
  • you like awkward, unlovable main characters.

You might not like Mansfield Park if:

  • you like action, plot and intrigue.

Final Thoughts: Mansfield Park is the most skipable of Austen’s novels.

Pride and Prejudice

Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy

Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen, 1813

Originally, I wasn’t going to reread anything for this project.  However, now it would seem strange to skip over major works of literature in my chronological journey through the canon.  So, I am adding books to the list that I have already read, but I forgot to add Pride and Prejudice until after I read Emma and Mansfield Park.  Hence, my Austen chronology has gotten mixed up and my opinion of Austen got mixed up with it.

Here’s a summary of how I felt as I read the first 4 of 6 Austen novels on my list:

Before: Ugh, so much Austen.

During Sense and Sensibilty: Ugh.  Yuck.  Blergh.

During Mansfield Park: Yawn.  Why does anybody read this stuff?

During Emma: Ok, Austen, I’m not too mad.  Emma is kind of a worthless B, though.

During Pride and Prejudice: OMG, Darcy and Lizzy’s love is more important to me than my own life!  They are the best lovers in literature.  Yay, Austen!


Pride and Prejudice Cosplay

There’s a good reason for P&P being Austen’s most well-read and well-regarded novel.  It is largely absent of the flaws common to her other works.  As I see it, those flaws include excessive length, thoroughly boring characters and conversations, scanty plot and weak characterization.  Sense and Sensibility and Mansfield Park are the worst offenders.  Pride and Prejudice, however, doesn’t have these problems.  Despite the maxim that authors should show rather than tell, when characters are having a dull conversation, it’s often better for the author to summarize.  In Mansfield Park Austen dedicates 10 pages to a pointless conversation about shrubbery just to show the reader that a certain character is profoundly boring.  In P&P she mercifully tells us that Sir William Lucas and his daughter “had nothing to say that could be worth hearing” and moves on with the story.  That summary made me so happy.  Writer win!

I have probably read this book five times now and each time I find myself more emotionally invested in the lives of the characters.  I wonder how much this has to do with the merit of the book versus the cultural cache these characters have.  Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy transcend their novel of origin.  Am I invested in their love story because I like this book or because I like the BBC miniseries or the film starring Kiera Knightley or because I’m pretty much obsessed with Bridget Jones’s Diary?  Any way you slice it, I really care about their love.  They provide the archetype of the lovers who initially misunderstand and dislike each other, are thrown together by circumstance and grow to have a deep respect and horniness for each other.  By my estimation, 98% of RomComs and romance novels make use of this archetype.  I guess we’re all hoping that the people who dislike us just don’t “get” us and with more time and experience will see how deeply wonderful we are and propose, like, nine times.  Especially if the people that don’t like us happen to be rich and handsome.  The minor characters in Pride and Prejudice are more vivid than in other Austen novels.  The sarcastic, lackadaisical father, the frivolous, inappropriate mother and sisters, and the sycophantic Mr. Collins are literary archetypes in their own right.

The love stories in earlier novels go one of two ways: 1: “Hi, nice to meet you.  You’re hot.  I’m hot.  Our parents are ok with it.  Let’s get married.  I’ll send for the pastor in the morning.” Or 2: “Hey, dummy, let’s elope.”  I think Pride and Prejudice resonates with modern readers, because we want lovers to get to know each other.  We like to see marriages founded on affection.  We want characters to have some experiences together before they tie the knot.  Elizabeth and Darcy do this and it helps the reader feel invested in their romance.

I didn’t like Pride and Prejudice when I read it as a teenager.  Elizabeth Bennet has grit, but you need a decent understanding of the social norms of the early 19th century British aristocracy to appreciate her particular spunkiness.  In the context of earlier novels and when compared to Austen’s other heroines Lizzy is a breath of fresh air that provided me a much needed reprieve from the swooning, confused, inactive ladies of early English literature.  Many people romanticize this era in literature, but in the past I have found it difficult to relate to the concerns and sentiments of Austen’s characters.  With more life experience relating to Austen gets easier.  I have actually spurned a lover for being ill-bred.

You might not like Pride and Prejudice if:

  • Eh hem.  If there’s one thing I’ve come to terms with as an appreciator of English literature, it’s that not liking Pride and Prejudice is not an option.  You will read it and you will like it!  If you find yourself not liking it, revise your thinking.  We, the literati, have decided that there is nothing wrong with this book.  If you don’t like it, there’s something wrong with you.  Bad wrong.
Pride and Prejudice Cosplay

This photoshoot gave me the chance to tell Simone to “Clasp me to your bosom!”

Quote:

“‘I am astonished, my dear,’ said Mrs. Bennet, ‘That you should be so ready to think your own children silly.  If I wished to think slightingly of any body’s children, it should not be of my own however.’”

You might like Pride and Prejudice if:

  • Wait, you haven’t read Pride and Prejudice yet?  That’s crazy.  Borrow a copy from a friend.  Pretty much everyone owns this book.  (My home seems to spawn copies of P+P.  Every time I purge my bookshelf I get rid of two extra copies.)  It’s a quick and delightful read that displays Austen’s unique wit at its best.  Read it now so you can read it again two more times.  It just gets better.

Sense and Sensibility

Sense and Sensibility Jane Austen

Sense and Sensibility, Jane Austen, 1811

I have a lot of thoughts about Austen. I won’t lay them all on you today.  I put all five of her novels on the list, so we will get to them over the next few weeks.  I will say that Sense and Sensibility is a brilliant title.  It keys the reader in to the central concept of the novel, the contrast between the two sisters’ reactions to heartbreak, hardship and injured pride.  Elinor’s measured, restrained, self-denying response highlights the selfishness of Marianne’s effusions of grief, wallowing and lack of concern for the effect her emotions have on those around her.

I do appreciate the point that Austen illustrates about being over-emotional or perhaps excessively restrained and I appreciate the way that she makes it.  I think she presents a valuable observation about human nature.  However, I must be missing something when it comes to Jane Austen overall.  I find her a bit dull and considerably spiteful.  I know that other readers love the sharp-witted barbs she slings at her characters.  That’s perfectly valid, but I get weary of her constant enumerations of the character flaws of aristocrats.  Yes, there are people in this world who are frivolous or mean-spirited or unintelligent, but surely Austen knew some admirable people.  Right?  This really boils down to a matter of taste.  Some readers will delight in what I see as tiresome cattiness.

Like all Austen novels the main concern in Sense and Sensibility is who everyone will marry.  Frankly, I don’t really care who they marry.  Recently, I was complaining about this to my best friend who said “but, you were the one who explained to me why that’s so important.”  What did I explain? Deciding who to marry was the only chance a woman had to determine the course of her own life.  Women had few means of accumulating wealth.  So, “making a good match” was their one chance to improve their circumstances; something women can now do throughout their adult lives without getting accused of being mercenary or callous too often.  I think I may have made this point in reference to “Middlemarch” in which George Eliot clearly delineates the causes and consequences of deciding who to marry.  She shows how ill-equipped Dorothea and Rosamund are to make this decision; how ill-suited they are to get along with the husbands that they choose.  Austen does not do this.  The reason I don’t feel invested in the Dashwood’s marital prospects is not that I don’t think marriage is an interesting topic for a book.  I don’t care who they end up with, because the gentlemen in question lack dimension.  I guess I want Elinor to marry Edward, but only because she seems to want to.  I can’t remember a single thing he says from the entire book, but I distinctly remember that he doesn’t do anything until he proposes to Elinor.  Not one thing.  Sorry, Austen fans, but that’s terrible.  She spent so much time establishing exactly how nasty and self-interested Lucy Steele is in her attempts to impede  Elinor’s marriage to Edward, that she failed (yes, FAILED) to give us a reason to root for said marriage.  This is supposed to be a canonically awesome item of literature.  In the 1995 Ang Lee movie they had to add scenes and plot elements to Edward’s character (remember the bit where he sends the atlas to the little sister?), because not even the irrepressibly charming Hugh Grant can make something out of nothing.

That’s enough anti-Austen rhetoric for now.  Next up, Sydney vs. Mansfield Park.  For the record, I do mostly respect Jane Austen as an author.  I just don’t enjoy her as much as everyone else in the world seems to.  Sense and Sensibility with all its imperfections is not a bad first novel and Austen’s later novels improve a bit in some areas.  She gets a bit better about showing rather than telling, for example.  A bit.

Oh wait, one more thing.  SPOILER, BY THE WAY, IF YOU HAVEN’T READ IT DON’T SCROLL PAST THE PICTURE. 

Sense and Sensibility Jane Austen

I am completely not ok with the way Austen disposes of Marianne.  She marries Colonel Brandon because her family wants her to and she feels bad about wearing on their nerves during her long mope over Willoughby?  She grows to love him eventually?  You’ve got to be kidding!  I mean here’s Austen’s explanation of why they wish for a marriage between Marianne and the Colonel:

Precious as was the company of her daughter to her, she desired nothing so much as to give it up to her valued friend; and to see Marianne settled at the mansion-house was equally the wish of Edward in Elinor.  They each felt his sorrows, and their own obligations, and Marianne, by general consent, was to be the reward of all. 

Really?  Really?  Colonel Brandon has been through so much, we should do something nice for him, like, I don’t know, give him our daughter as a prize.  Literally, a consolation prize.   You may want to make the claim that Austen is being ironic and mocking her characters.   However, Colonel Brandon and Marianne end up super happy together and in love, which is how Austen rewards the good decisions of the characters she herself has deemed deserving.  Blerf.

You may like Sense and Sensibility if:

  • you like Jane Austen, generally.

You may not like Sense and Sensibility if:

  • you need action in your novels.  I know some readers like characters to do more than loll about wondering who to marry. 

Final thoughts: I have no final thoughts.  My thoughts on Austen are to be continued.