I actually can’t remember how old I was when I first read Persuasion. I must have been at university, though, because I know where I bought my copy from; the Oxfam book shop in my local high street, on my lunch break from the library job I worked at during my summer breaks. This Oxfam bookshop was run by two complete stereotypes; slightly younger than middle aged men, with terrible corduroy trousers and hand knitted jumpers, hair that hadn’t seen a barber’s in years and an awkward, fumbling inability to meet any of their customers in the eye. My attempts at striking up some kind of rapport failed miserably; red faced and damp palmed, the poor member of the duo who had the misfortune to actually have to serve customers did nothing but mumble and raise a faint smile at my witty banter as I self righteously bought piles of old Penguin Classics to read smugly on the bus home. I was devastated to find, when I returned home from my final year at university, that the shop had been closed and replaced with an organic café. Apparently my particular patch of South East London is not a profitable market for Oxfam Books; considering that I was usually the only person in there, I can’t deny the truth of this. However, neither is South East London a good place to launch wheatgrass juice and smoothies; the café closed soon afterwards and the shop has stood empty ever since, an epitaph to the fate of the second hand books industry. I still think about that book selling duo. I worry for them, and hope they managed to find jobs elsewhere. I also hope they’re not still living with their mothers.
I digress. My copy of Persuasion is an old Everyman paperback; a double edition, including Northanger Abbey. I’d read all of Austen apart from these two at this point in my 18 year old life, and I was excited to discover more. I raced through Northanger Abbey, not really ‘getting’ it, because I hadn’t studied Gothic Literature yet, but enjoying it nonetheless, and then began Persuasion. I really don’t understand why so many copies of Persuasion have Northanger Abbey tacked onto them, because you could not find two Austen novels more opposed in their tone and subject matter. I was riveted by Persuasion, and read it in a day. Newly experienced in the travails of love, thanks to a gorgeous drama student who had already managed to break my tender heart, I read my pain in every line. Anne Elliot was a heroine I could identify with; sensible, good, downtrodden, undervalued, and heartbroken. She too feared spinsterhood; she too feared change; she too had her regrets. Even at 18, I had begun to understand that life was not all I had been led to expect it might be, and the note of melancholy, rather than of predominate lightheartedness found in Austen’s earlier novels, struck a chord with my burgeoning adult heart.
Fast forward a few years, and I had entered my twenties. Living in a grotty shared house with friends, working hard for a pittance in London, struggling to make ends meet and nowhere closer to finding my Prince Charming, I wondered when the glamour of adulthood was going to turn up and start transforming my life into a plot worthy of a romantic novel. I turned to Persuasion time and time again to soothe my already world weary soul with the tale of Anne Elliot; Anne, who was loving, and kind, and resourceful, and who had managed to soldier on and enjoy her life despite the heartache of losing the man she loved and the home she adored. Anne was a heroine worth believing in. Her life was no fairytale; she wasn’t particularly rich, particularly pretty, particularly talented or particularly loved. As much as I love Emma, Emma Wodehouse, despite her faults, is still a picture-perfect heroine, and her life does not throw many snares across her path to a happy ending. Anne’s, by contrast, has been a steady stream of them; a dead mother, an indifferent father, two nauseous sisters, a beloved childhood home thoughtlessly snatched from her, friends and family who take her for granted and do not consider her thoughts or wishes, her heart given to a man who no longer loves her; she is cast adrift in a world that she has no control over, subservient to the desires of her odious father and demanding, selfish sisters. Overlooked, belittled and treated like a servant, she is someone you cannot help but root for, and identify with.
Anne’s story became my comfort and my joy on long evenings when I found myself melodramatically reflecting on all the things that had gone wrong in my life, and what a failure I was already, at the tender age of 22. Instead of crying myself to sleep, I would sit up into the early hours, reading Persuasion, to remind myself that ordinary girls like me could get their happy ending. I might have to wait a while, like Anne does, but that day would surely come. Then, life took a further twist for me, providing a further, and deeper, reason for Persuasion to gain such a hold over my heart; I met my own Captain Wentworth. As our friendship began to develop into romance, I found myself falling in love. But then he did something to disappoint me; furious at his behaviour, I refused his attempts to make amends. Over long nights of talking things over with my friends, accompanied by copious amounts of cheap red wine, I was persuaded by them to give him up; he wasn’t good enough for me, they said. Fuelled by my anger and convinced by my friends’ character assassinations of the poor boy, I cut our ties. I only realised my mistake a few months later; by then, it was too late.
I can’t tell you how many times I have read Captain Wentworth’s letter to Anne, wishing that it had been written to me. We have shared the same experience, and have the same constant hearts; even though it makes no sense, we continue to love, and long, and hope, despite all hope appearing lost. Anne gets on with her life, as I have with mine, and neither of us are unhappy, but that Captain Wentworth shaped hole has been burned into our hearts, and nothing we can do will ever make us forget. When I read Persuasion, I often feel like Jane Austen had somehow been able to peer into my heart, and spill its secrets like ink from her fountain pen. It hurts to read Anne’s pain, so deeply does my own still run, but it does also heal. Jane Austen wrote Anne’s experiences so well because she was not alone in feeling them. My experiences and my feelings are not unique; millions of men and women have gone through the same tribulations and come out on the other side, still in one piece. Anne shows that loving and losing does not a tragic heroine make; she is no Marianne, wasting away on a sofa. Instead, she just gets on with her life. She taught me that whatever happens with my own Captain Wentworth, I can and will be perfectly happy regardless. I am not naive enough to believe that I will get my happy ending as Anne gets hers, but I am romantic enough to appreciate the lesson that love enriches, even when it wounds, and that the person I have become because I have loved and lost is still better than the person I would have been without ever having done so.
Oh, Persuasion! It is a beautiful portrait of the depths of the human heart, and I am going to be re-reading it slowly, probably over the course of a month, starting on September 18th. I’d love for you to join me. I’ve made a little button you can use on your blogs (just save the image in this post) and I will come up with a posting schedule and some topics for discussion nearer the time. It’s going to be a casual, leisurely, very Autumnal read along; perfect for when the nights begin to draw in. You don’t need to sign up or commit to anything, and all are welcome, regardless of whether you have a blog or not, or whether you have time to read the whole book or not. I am keen to explore all facets of this remarkable work of Austen’s, and I can’t wait to read it with others whose experiences of Persuasion are perhaps not quite so emotionally tangled as mine. I am looking forward to it already – I hope you are too!