Smile Politely

You still like me? Check this box.

PersuasionIt’s been almost 200 years since the era of Jane Austen, yet her novels spawn movie remakes every other year and weeklong BBC miniseries events. Students of English literature dissect and scrutinize her novels now more than ever, but Austen’s work did not earn her any notoriety during her lifetime. She published her novels anonymously, reaped the monetary rewards, and died in relative obscurity. Her last two novels, Northanger Abbey and Persuasion, were published posthumously. She rewrote the final two chapters of Persuasion a few months before she died. The novel’s happy ending did not change, but the final mile varied a bit from the original manuscript.

After an initial thirty pages of tumbleweed-across-the-desert character introductions and exposition, the novel takes off. Its main character, Anne Elliot, was once engaged to Captain Frederick Wentworth, before he was a captain or had much of a fortune or social rank to recommend him. Anne’s father, Sir Walter Elliot, did not expressly forbid the marriage, but he made it clear to Anne that she would not receive any money from him if it ever took place. Her elder sister, Elizabeth, also met the news of Anne’s engagement with a lethal dose of low-level hostility. After such a cold reception, Anne turned to her confidant and mentor, Lady Russell, for advice. Lady Russell was just as hesitant about the match as Anne’s family had been. She suggested to Anne that a more advantageous (read: lucrative), match could be made elsewhere.

Being young and impressionable, Anne took Lady Russell’s advice to heart and broke off the engagement to Wentworth. Eight years later, Anne’s memory of him and the hurt she caused have lessened, but are not gone. She is on the verge of becoming a spinster, and her family has fallen on tough times. Her father liked his silk vests and brandy a little too much, so could no longer sustain his profligate lifestyle. He decides to let his baronial estate, Kellynch, and move the family to a smaller residence in Bath.

The new tenants just happen to be related to Captain Frederick Wentworth. In the eight and a half years since the broken engagement, he has amassed heroic stature and a small fortune by capturing French ships during the Napoleonic Wars. Thus Anne and the Captain are once again thrown together. Through extended family visits and a side trip to Lyme, an experience never quite complete without a concussion, the two realize that they still love each other. This time they will not be persuaded otherwise.

There is not much description of sights, sounds, or smells to pull readers into the story. Instead, they are swept into Anne’s frenetic mind through Austen’s use of free, indirect discourse. This literary technique of blending a character’s thoughts into the narration instead of using the conventional quotes and he said/she said to differentiate them, exposed the reader to Anne’s nervous anticipation, dread, awkward silences, and all things thought but left unsaid. The romantic nuances lay in the length of a look or lingering handshake, bodily proximity of the person in question and half a dozen other trifles that could be misconstrued:

“So altered that he should not have known her again!” These were words which could not but dwell within her. Yet she soon began to rejoice that she had heard them. They were of sobering tendency; they allayed agitation; they composed, and consequently must make her happier.

Frederick Wentworth had used such words, or something like them, but without an idea that they would be carried round to her.

Anne Elliot often indulges in the peculiar feminine pastime of Over-analyzation: dissecting everything said by some random dude for vocal resonance and intonation, underlying or alternate meanings and the facial expression he wore as he uttered each phrase. This went on for pages whenever Anne and Capt. Wentworth happened to be in the same room pretending not to notice each other.
Near the end of Persuasion, Wentworth writes Anne a short note professing his undying love and reveals its location to her as he leaves the room. Regency England may have been a simpler time and place, but all the note-passing during history class and speculation on Anne’s part as to whether or not Wentworth looked at her when he mentioned when they’d broken up seemed a bit juvenile. It’s behavior better relegated to high school, talked of incessantly in a circle of girls at a school dance or agonized over during the nightly marathon phone conversations between teenagers:

“How did he look when he said that?”
“Were his friends there?”
“What else did he say?”

While it’s true that adult women are sometimes guilty of the above, they’ve not spoken of it aloud since junior year, of college, if not before. Therein lies the subconscious appeal. Even though it’s been two hundred years, young women still exhibit the same strange, neurotic behavior as Alice Elliot, Elizabeth Bennett, or any of Jane Austen’s other heroines. Without a useful occupation or gainful employment to distract them, what was there for women to do all day but embroider cushions, practice the pianoforte, or sketch the lush English landscape, if not agonize over the details of their exiguous love lives?

Austen’s novels, in addition to the realistic portrayal of women’s under-taxed minds, draw attention to their plight at the time: Utterly dependent; at the mercy of father, brother or husband for their social stature and wealth, with no means to acquire it on their own. Miss Austen herself died a spinster at the age of 41. It was only after she’d been moldering beneath the floor of a church for fifty-some-odd years that her novels drew recognition as exceptional examples of authorship. Of course, in the 200 years since Persuasion was written, the average vocabulary has evolved. A better title for Persuasion might be Concentration, as many of the commonplace words and spellings of words that Austen utilized have changed or are no longer used, so keep a dictionary close to hand. The peculiar feminine neuroses and tendency toward over-analyzation, however, will most likely never change.

Rating: 3 of 5

More Articles