Ex Libris: Persuasion

“The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid.” — Jane Austen

There is perhaps no canonical author who has had swept modern culture as comprehensively as Jane Austen. Soldiers fighting in the trenches during World War I reportedly read her novels, as well as those who were recovering from injuries or shell-shock, to escape the gruesome horror of their reality and relive the more civilized time of the past. The continual resonance of her stories centuries after they were first published has developed into a modern obsession as more adaptations seem to release yearly — from shockingly paranormal variants like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies to international reinterpretations like Bollywood’s Bride and Prejudice, the gamut also ranges to modern adaptations such as Clueless and Bridget Jones’s Diary

I had an English professor in college who opened her class on Jane Austen by acknowledging that while all of us “Janites” probably assumed that we would naturally have been best friends with Austen, this was likely quite far from the truth. In contrast with many of her romantically besotted enthusiasts, the real Jane Austen, my professor explained, was more the type to be sitting in a corner at a party, smirking to herself as the peacocks paraded their plumes and the social butterflies flit around the ballroom, and amusing herself with a caustically witty mental commentary on the ridiculousness of society’s affectation. 

Indeed, her juvenilia is pure parody of the late 18th century cultural norms, and while her adult novels scale back such exaggerated caricature, there is nevertheless no dearth of Austen’s quiet, sardonic laughter at the whole affair — and at the reader who is so enraptured with it —  from her corner, scribbling furiously away. We Janites tend to assume that Elizabeth Bennet was modeled on her author, while in reality Austen penned much more of herself into the reclusive and snarky Mr. Bennet of Pride and Prejudice.

Persuasion was Austen’s last completed novel, written at age 40 one year before her death, and published posthumously six months after Addison’s disease claimed her life. In fact, she never even named it. “Persuasion” was the title chosen by her brother, Henry, as no sources existed documenting her intentioned final title; her only reference to the work was as The Elliots

Starkly different in tone from her previous works, Persuasion is told through the perspective of a much older heroine (Anne is quite “past her bloom” at 27), and through reflections, experiences and regrets, Austen explores the possibility of second chances in relationships. Readers are used to Austen always giving her heroines what they want at the end (both love and money — a combination which in fact exposes a paradox of her seeming to promoting marriage for love alone, as none of her ladies ever happen to marry without money), so it is a rather surprising start that this particular heroine has already seemed to miss her opportunity for love and happiness with the novel’s hero.

In Persuasion, Austen writes, “Anne, at seven and twenty, thought very differently from what she had been made to think at nineteen … She had been forced into prudence in her youth, she learned romance as she grew older — the natural sequel of an unnatural beginning.”

In her introduction to The Folio Society edition, acclaimed author Siri Hustvedt writes, “The world of this book is different from that of Pride and Prejudice and Emma with their sprightly if myopic heroines, whose sentimental educations and the tremors that accompany them take place in orderly, hierarchical milieus. As many critics have pointed out, the ground has shifted in Persuasion … Both the constancy of [Anne’s] affection for her lost lover and her age, now well beyond the time most young women are married, militate against another chance for love. Austen presents Anne’s loss as a gain in eloquence.”

This novel is pensive and contemplative — but not to be mistaken as tedious. Where Austen described Pride and Prejudice to her sister Cassandra as “rather too light, and bright, and sparkling,” Persuasion strikes a mature note and seems a fitting last word for Austen to her readers. It is such an incomparable contrast to Pride and Prejudice that it easily is my second favorite Austen novel. 

Published in series with Pride and Prejudice, Emma and Sense and Sensibility, this edition of Persuasion is released in time for Christmas as the most recent addition to The Folio Society’s Jane Austen collection.