Persuasion – Jane Austen, as read by Karen Savage

I say this a lot, but it’s been a very long time since I read Persuasion. I know the movie (Ciaran Hinds & Amanda Root, the only one worth watching) very very well, and it was a pure joy to be reminded of how utterly and beautifully faithful it is to the book, and another joy to be reminded of all of the elements that did not make it into the film. Karen Savage’s reading was lovely and just enhanced my enjoyment of the story.

I wonder if the book’s title came from the prevalence of the word throughout the text, or if Miss Austen went back and threaded different forms of “persuade” into it afterward. (Wikipedia’s messy article on the book (really, if someone’s read Austen I would have thought that meant they could use proper English) indicates that the book was untitled at Jane Austen’s death and that her brother named it – therefore, I guess, the former.) It’s a pernicious little word, and quiet in its poison. Nineteen-year-old Anne was not bullied into giving Frederick up, nor ordered to do so, nor forced – nothing so loud and against her will. No, it’s worse: she was persuaded. Lady Russell poured poison into her ear and sweetly nudged and subtly herded and full only of concern for Anne and only in her best interests steered her away from him until Anne bent to her will, became convinced that such a marriage would be bad not only for her and her family but also for him, and she turned him away. I don’t doubt but that was quite a bit less quiet.

I like Anne, a great deal. She was, I think, not so much weak as pliant and obliging when she was young; she retains some of that pliability, but the pain she has lived with for eight years has woken her up and steeled her spine. She is willing and content to do for others, even those who are tiresome or who require rather than request, but she has a mind of her own, and it’s a good one.

I don’t know if I would love Wentworth without Ciaran Hinds’s interference; I would like him, at least, and sympathize with him; I don’t think it would be a Boromir-saved-by-Sean-Bean situation. He sounds like he was a bit free-wheeling when he was younger and courting Anne – he made a good deal of money and spent it, though Miss Austen declines to say on what. He does not seem to be a gambler of any sort; my semi-informed guess would be that he spent it on things he liked and on his sister and brother and friends.

I despise Lady Russell. I said so on a Goodreads Austen group, and was (genteelly, as befits an Austen group) jumped on for it and in all ways declared to be in the wrong. (“She stops the marriage with Wentworth because she cares so much for Anne and wants to protect her. Wentworth is penniless, was about to go to war and could have died.”) I backed off, thinking my opinion must be faulty because it was based mainly on the film and not the book; the movie, I thought, must have slanted the character to encourage my dislike.

But it didn’t. Listening to the book, I was a little surprised – and a little gratified – to find that while Lady Russell has to her credit a genuine affection and care for Anne, she is every bit as ludicrously snobbish and closed-minded as I thought – as much so, in fact, as Sir Walter himself. She. Ruined. Anne’s. Life. Eight years of it, at least, and her interference was only remedied by chance. Also: Frederick’s life, ruined. For eight years, both of them existed in some degree of misery because of Lady Russell. She took their love lightly, counted it as far less important than Anne’s countenance and position, and never took into consideration the fact that in her concern for Anne’s future security she was thoroughly sabotaging Anne’s present and future happiness.

Was Lady Russell well-meaning? Of course. I never questioned that she honestly loved Anne. Was Lady Russell wrong? In theory, no. In practice, very much so. And in the end, criminally. The article I link there talks about how Lady R was trying to save Anne from making the same mistake as her mother – but she did not, apparently, trouble herself to determine that Frederick was very different from Sir Walter Elliot, nor that feeling ran deep on both sides. Anne might have had eight years of worrying over Frederick being injured or killed in the wars, but in the end …

Was Anne at fault as well? Of course. But she was nineteen years old. And it wasn’t a 19 comparable in any way to 19 years old today; it was a sheltered 19 used to being guided by her guardians, unused to having her voice heard or heeded. She relied on Lady Russell as she would have her own mother. And Lady Russell was dead set against Wentworth.

Put it this way: if she had continued to allow herself to be guided – to be persuaded – by Lady Russell at the age of 27 there’s a damn good possibility she would have shortly found herself married to Mr. Elliot; that good lady despised him as much as Sir Walter in the beginning, and swung entirely over to his side with surprising quickness. Despite what she knew of his past, she saw an agreeable face and manners and an evidently decent fortune and set her persuasiveness to the end of pushing Anne toward him as she had pushed her away from Wentworth. If Wentworth had been married; if he had indicated he couldn’t stand the sight of Anne; if Anne had fallen out of love with him; if she had not at that moment had Wentworth filling her eyes and heart Anne might have been once more persuaded. And that would have turned the story into a tragedy.

Another part of that discussion on Goodreads that completely shocked me was about how Wentworth victimized Anne – “8 years after what happened between them, Wentworth did not forget, he came back to avenge for his broken heart; 8 years is more than enough to forget and forgive! Wentworth was decided to hurt Anne. He was indulged with the Miss Musgroves though he had no intentions of going beyond flirtations. He did it to rub it in Anne’s face” …

I didn’t fight it then and there; I did protest, and happily was backed up by someone else; but, again, I didn’t go into detail because I wasn’t entirely sure of my ground, and my partisanship for Frederick Wentworth is obviously influenced by my infatuation with Ciaran Hinds in the role. Who knew but that the movie whitewashed Frederick a bit and slandered Lady R? Well. It didn’t. Wentworth re-emerged into Anne’s life because he had little choice in the matter. He could have shirked it, told his sister that he had to be elsewhere – but he’s not that kind of man, and besides which they were renting the Elliots’ house for an extended period. He had to know he wasn’t going to be able to avoid the Elliots for the whole time, and – in keeping with his character indicated by his naval actions and advancement – he did not try to avoid it, letting very little time pass before he entered the fray and went to visit his sister. I’ll go back to the earlier format: Was he rather cutting with her? Sure. It would take a saint to refrain completely from at least a few cutting remarks. She broke his heart eight years ago and he has not found anyone else in the intervening time to mend it. He genuinely loved her: “I have loved none but you. Unjust I may have been, weak and resentful I have been, but never inconstant.” “Weak and resentful” – he admits it, he was unforgiving when they first met, and he has regretted it. But eight years is hardly “more than enough to forget and forgive” – anyone writing that has never had deep feelings for someone. She wronged him in such a way as to wreck both their lives. Eight years is nothing at all with that kind of pain.

“…He had no intentions of going beyond flirtations”. Nonsense. He had built himself a successful career, and now in this time of peace all he hears is “you’ll be finding yourself a wife soon, of course!” He had been severely hurt by Anne, and my guess would be that he had no intention of even thinking about considering the least notion of courting her, ever again. She was never demonstrative, and was still working her way through her own feelings, so she could not and would not and did not offer him any sort of encouragement. And there at the Musgroves’ and most certainly in Lyme, with two pretty girls flinging themselves at him (literally, in the case of Louisa) and Anne very much not flinging herself at him, how could he not entertain the idea that one of these girls was a possibility? He was expected to settle down; he had a desire to settle down. He was … persuaded … that he ought to choose a wife and, since he could not apparently have the love of his life it might as well be the bright and vivacious Louisa, not least because everyone around him (including Louisa) took it as read. Then silly Louisa fell, and he saw how Anne reacted in the crisis – both the immediate emergency and in the trying days after – and gauged her reactions to him, and doesn’t seem to have given Louisa, much less her sister, another thought. I believe he gave some serious thought to the Musgrove sisters – which is my belief if for no other reason than that it would be a rather repulsive man who would toy with two young girls just to get back at an old flame, and Anne would not continue to love an ugly-spirited man.

What, I wonder, would have happened if Frederick Wentworth had returned to Anne’s life under different circumstances? As a lowly lieutenant or commander, not having caught the luck and bounties that Captain Wentworth could rejoice in? Would Anne have been strong enough to see that he still loved her, and to accept a renewal of his courtship?

In the end, Lady Russell does redeem herself. She is forced to face the fact that she was wrong – about Wentworth, about Elliot, about Anne.

The only one among them whose opposition of feeling could excite any serious anxiety was Lady Russell. Anne knew that Lady Russell must be suffering some pain in understanding and relinquishing Mr. Elliot, and be making some struggles to become truly acquainted with, and do justice to Captain Wentworth. This, however, was what Lady Russell had now to do. She must learn to feel that she had been mistaken with regard to both; that she had been unfairly influenced by appearances in each; that because Captain Wentworth’s manners had not suited her own ideas, she had been too quick in suspecting them to indicate a character of dangerous impetuosity; and that because Mr. Elliot’s manners had precisely pleased her in their propriety and correctness, their general politeness and suavity, she had been too quick in receiving them as the certain result of the most correct opinions and well-regulated mind. There was nothing less for Lady Russell to do, than to admit that she had been pretty completely wrong, and to take up a new set of opinions and of hopes.

One note I can’t resist making in counterpoint to the article in defense of Lady Russell:

When Lady Russell objects to Frederick’s having “no connexions to secure even his farther rise in” the navy, we should not interpret this as an example of her “value for rank and consequence” (11). (It is interesting to speculate that Frederick must have never mentioned to anyone other than Anne during his initial visit to Somersetshire that he had a naval “connexion” in his sister, the wife of Admiral Croft. Mrs. Croft says in 1814 that she has been married for fifteen years and thus would have been married to the admiral for seven years by 1806.)

He wasn’t necessarily an admiral as yet in 1806.

If for no other reason, Persuasion is one of my favorite books because it contains one of my favorite passages, one of my favorite letters, fictional or non.  Frederick:

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. Dare not say that 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. You alone have brought me to Bath. For you alone, I think and plan. Have you not seen this? Can you fail to have understood my wishes? I had not waited even these ten days, could I have read your feelings, as I think you must have penetrated mine. I can hardly write. I am every instant hearing something which overpowers me. You sink your voice, but I can distinguish the tones of that voice when they would be lost on others. Too good, too excellent creature! You do us justice, indeed. You do believe that there is true attachment and constancy among men. Believe it to be most fervent, most undeviating, in

F. W.

I must go, uncertain of my fate; but I shall return hither, or follow your party, as soon as possible. A word, a look, will be enough to decide whether I enter your father’s house this evening or never.

Such a letter was not to be soon recovered from.

I imagine not.

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4 Responses to Persuasion – Jane Austen, as read by Karen Savage

  1. accountantgrrl says:

    I vow to read all of the Jane Austen books I haven’t read yet. That’s my goal for 2012.

  2. stewartry says:

    I think I was in denial about how many I hadn’t read. I love the Librivox recordings! Mansfield Park is on my iPod now.

  3. Pingback: “Persuasion” by Jane Austen | Belper Book Chat

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