“I declare after all there is no enjoyment like reading! How much sooner one tires of any thing than of a book! – When I have a house of my own, I shall be miserable if I have not an excellent library.” ― Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice
I was just reflecting on what an uplifting story Persuasion is, despite its bleak
beginnings and stark lines between heroes and villains. As Austen’s last novel,
some critics have dared to attack it
for containing lesser subtlety—almost a fairytale of sorts. While I’ll have to
defend fairytales another time, I’d like to defend Persuasion against a jab about its subtlety.
It isn’t a typical happy ending tale. This isn’t a case of a
princess having a fleeting meeting with her prince, a brief period of
disappointment and longing, and then bliss. This story comes to us after eight years of Anne Elliot’s suffering.
She didn’t have just a fleeting meeting; she had a real chance at love, and
threw it away.
Elizabeth Bennet arrives on the scene not yet
one-and-twenty, never having been in love. Marianne Dashwood has probably thought
she was in love half-a-dozen times.
But Anne. Anne screwed up. Now, I don’t blame her—she was
young. She was basically unsupported in every area of her life except by one,
much older friend who was basically a surrogate mother figure—and that’s the voice
that told her to let go of Wentworth the first time around. I don’t blame Anne
for listening to that voice.
But can you imagine the guilt? The misery of looking around
at your foppish father and your querulous sisters, and thinking, I chose this? And eight, eight years go by. Reinforcing the
permanence of that choice every day.
I guess I resonate with this because I feel like one of my
greatest fears is missed chances. As if I, like Anne, listened to the wrong
advice and threw love away before I knew what it was. Or maybe I never got the
opportunity because there’s something wrong with me—I’m just trapped by a
refrain that, this is my life, this is my
life, so nothing good and unexpected and beautiful could happen…
What a hopeless refrain! Yet it permeates much of Persuasion…because after eight years,
Wentworth returns…and seemingly wants nothing to do with Anne. Yes, we can
imagine her bitterly thinking (for even Anne, with her patience and goodness
and sweetness, had some bitterness mixed in by the force of cruel
circumstances)—this is my life. He
comes back, he doesn’t want her, he throws the possibility of a relationship
with a younger, spunkier woman in her face—and Anne just has to suffer through
it. She has no one to confide in, no one who is looking at her. The one person
who she might have shared everything with is angry with her. And one of the sharpest
truths is that he is still in love with her, and that’s where his anger comes
from—but all she can see is his indifference, because as every woman knows, we can’t see inside men’s heads.
It seems so hopeless.
And then. Anne keeps living, because this is her life. She sucks it up, she continues to be patient, to
be good. She doesn’t wallow, as much as she probably wants to. And it is that
persistence that shows Captain Frederick Wentworth what he’s missing—that resentment
isn’t going to mend his heart, she is–and he cannot live without her. This is his
life, and he can’t imagine Anne not in it.
They get their happy ending. And I get a bit of hope—all of
us readers do, if we are struggling with the mundane realities of every day, with the
fear that we blew our big chance at a golden future.
Of course our lives aren’t novels. (At least, they haven’t
inspired any yet). But our lives are not without hope. And the uplifting
message of Persuasion is that sometimes
living out the lives we have is what draws in the sunshine we have felt so
lacking for so long.
“You pierce my soul. I am half agony, half hope. Tell me not that I am too late, that such precious feelings are gone for ever. I offer myself to you again with a heart even more your own than when you almost broke it, eight and a half years ago. Dare not say that a man forgets sooner than woman, that his love has an earlier death. I have loved none but you. Unjust I may have been, weak and resentful I have been, but never inconstant.”
Mr. Darcy & Elizabeth: “You must know… surely, you must know it was all for you. You are too generous to trifle with me.” “If your feelings are still what they were last April, tell me so at once. My affections and wishes have not changed, but one word from you will silence me forever. If, however, your feelings have changed, I will have to tell you: you have bewitched me, body and soul, and I love, I love, I love you. I never wish to be parted from you from this day on.”
Mr. Lefroy & Jane Austen: “I have no money, no property, I am entirely dependent upon that bizarre old lunatic, my uncle. I cannot yet offer marriage, but you must know what I feel. Jane, I’m yours. God, I’m yours. I’m yours, heart and soul."
Captain Wentworth & Anne: "I can listen no longer in silence. I must speak to you by such means as are within my reach. You pierce my soul. I am half agony, half hope. Tell me not that I am too late, that such precious feelings are gone for ever. I offer myself to you again with a heart even more your own than when you almost broke it, eight years and a half ago."
Mr. Thornton & Margaret: "Miss Hale, I didn’t just come here to thank you. I came… because… I think it… very likely… I know I’ve never found myself in this position before. It’s… difficult to find the words. Miss Hale, my feelings for you… are very strong…” “I spoke to you about my feelings because I love you; I had no thought for your reputation!”
Mr. Nobley & Jane: “It’s as if I have never known you before this moment and naught else matters in this world but you, and how my heart beats for you. I love you.”
I imagined myself indifferent to her but I was only angry and resentful. Too late… too late I began to understand myself and her. Never have I met her equal in good sense or sweetness of character. She’s perfection itself. I’ve never loved any but her.