#184. PERSUASION. Flora Poste, the supremely confident heroine of Cold Comfort Farm (who resembles no one so much as Jane Austen’s Emma Woodhouse), when asked what she intends to do with her life, says “When I am fifty-three I would like to write a novel as good as Persuasion.” Well, good luck with that. I wish you the best.
Virginia Woolf famously wrote of Austen, “Of all the great writers she is the most difficult to catch in the act of greatness,” but with Persuasion you are certainly never left waiting around for it to happen. On rereading this last of her completed novels, I was struck so immediately with the point and proportion of Austen’s prose that the book swept all before it; everything else I was reading was set aside. Written at the end of her short life (she died at 41) it has the familial, social and romantic subjects of her previous work, but with a new, pensive, even painful weight. The satire, as Woolf pointed out, has some asperity to it, and the family setting a good deal of unthinking want of kindness; the characters have passions, more closely observed and felt than in Austen’s earlier work. One feels the real threat of age, loneliness, hopes defeated. The dreams are, blessedly, delayed rather than defeated, but still. This ain’t no disco.
It begins with Sir Walter Elliott, one of Austen’s prize lunkheads: dim as a donkey, and just as immovable. He has run his estate into the ground, and the family must relocate. This disruption is the engine of the novel, especially as experienced by Sir Walter’s middle daughter, Anne, who years ago at an older friend’s behest ended an engagement to a then-penniless sailor. Sir Walter’s estate is rented by the sailor’s sister and her husband, and the sailor himself, Captain Frederick Wentworth, shows up with a galling fortune under his belt from the Napoleonic wars. The action moves to include a cluster of friends, relatives, hangers-on, social superiors and inferiors—the two dozen or so characters that form the world of any Austen novel. For all the comic observation, the rigid distinctions that govern the Elliotts’ world seem more claustrophobic than in Austen’s earlier work; we may take the Bennetts rather charmingly for granted in Pride and Prejudice, say, but you don’t want to be Anne in Anne’s family, and when she begins to construct a more makeshift family of friends later in the novel it seems like a blessing.
Persuasion has a beautiful variety of scene--Kellynch Hall and Uppercross, moving to Lyme, and finally to Bath—and a very fine cast—the weighty and friendly Crofts, Lady Russell, the muddle of Anne’s married sister’s family, the love-disappointed Captain Benwick and his own adopted family the Harvilles, Anne’s now-invalid friend, Mrs. Smith—but it all ties tightly to the resolution of Anne’s disappointment, part of which indeed is in her final independence of her family’s approval. It has many of the joys of Austen’s other books, but a temper and twilit tone that sets it a bit apart. And it has something else. In the penultimate chapter, Anne and her new friend Harville discuss how the genders differ in fidelity and love. It’s dazingly beautiful, and when Anne speaks of “loving longest, when existence or when hope is gone,” she does something that Austen and her great heroines have never done, before or again: she wrings our heart.
There are God knows how many editions of Persuasion, including annotated editions from Norton and Anchor Books. One of the best chances ever to watch a novelist at work is to compare the original version of the climactic chapters of the book with their extended published version. Look closely and you may just catch Austen in the act of being great.