I’m almost finished re-reading Persuasion after not picking it up for a couple of years, and I was rewarded from the very first page by just how witty and observant Austen’s writing is. Even in this, her most ‘serious’ book, Austen can’t help being funny. Her wry asides are so perfectly judged, slotted into the narrative at just the right moment to produce the best effect, that they often had me giggling. However, within the same sentence that will leave me in fits of laughter, her skill is so great that she can also have my eyes pricking with tears. I really do believe, having read all of her works, that Persuasion is the culmination of Austen’s literary talents. It is her tightest and most convincing narrative, with a heroine who is flawed but perfect when it comes to providing the ultimate in reading pleasure.
The main thing I have noticed so far is how little direct speech Anne is given by Austen. We rarely hear her words; just her thoughts. Her voice is stifled; instead of reporting her conversation, Austen simply writes something along the lines of ‘Anne said what was proper’, or ‘She said all that was reasonable and proper’. What Anne says is not important to so many people in the novel; her father and sisters couldn’t care less for Anne’s opinions, comments, thoughts or feelings unless they have a direct effect on them; Anne is simply called upon to agree or soothe. Therefore, Austen doesn’t bother to give Anne a spoken voice; instead, she opens up her mind to us. Anne thinks to herself frequently; Austen tells us everything that is running through her head. Usually this is the exact opposite of what she has been called upon to say; the exact opposite of being ‘proper’. This oral restraint compared to the thoughts circling in her really very witty and intelligent mind is what makes her such an endearing character; she might appear to be very good and kind and patient and selfless, but inside she’s screaming in frustration at her idiotic, delusional father, and rolling her eyes at her sister Mary’s melodramatics and selfishness.
However, she wisely – I wish I were so wise – keeps her thoughts to herself, and lets what she can’t control wash over her. When it really matters, however, Anne stands up for herself – she won’t be forced against her will to do anything that she is able to have an influence over; she has learned her lesson. Anne is often viewed as a pushover, easily persuaded, easily led, a wet blanket, even; however, this reread has reminded me of her remarkable self control. Her strength of mind and character and her ability to keep herself going through the most trying of emotional upheavals and personal disappointments are extraordinary. Austen’s wonderful prose that closes Anne’s mouth while opening her mind and heart to the reader ensures that Anne’s inner strength shines through. I know that on the surface Anne can appear a rather dull Cinderella-like heroine, pushed about from pillar to post, allowing herself to be ill used by everyone; but really, she’s the exact opposite of this. She can discern when it’s worth putting up a fight, and when it’s not. When it matters, she is more than capable of fighting her corner, but when it comes to her sisters and her father, she knows that flattering them and doing as they wish will ultimately serve her better. Going against them, refusing to indulge them, or speaking up for those they disrespect, is not worth her while; it will only cause unnecessary conflict that would cause her pain anyway. She does what is ‘proper’ not because she is a pushover, but because she is sensible. She is wise enough to know when to speak and when not; but her thoughts do not have the same censure. They reveal Anne’s true heart, which has a depth, a beauty, a warmth and a humour her conversation with vain and silly people could never truly disclose.
I will write more on Persuasion next week; I hope that those of you who are reading along are enjoying it as much as I am. I’d love to hear your thoughts!