Persuasion Week 2: Emotion

Well, week two of the Persuasion read-along and I’ve had another week to ponder on this marvellous novel. Something that kept swirling about in my head was the emotive atmosphere Austen manages to create, and how a character’s emotional life bears on their general wellbeing. At the beginning, we feel Anne’s choice to withdraw from the possibility of a romantic life; we feel that sense of her being wasted; dried up, almost. This is not only evidenced in her lack of activity and of speech, as I discussed in my last post, but also in her appearance. ‘Her bloom had vanished early’; she is ‘faded and thin’; she is ‘haggard’. According to Wentworth, when he meets her again after eight and a half years, she is ‘wretchedly changed’. These descriptions create the image of a woman only half alive; she has been drained of her vitality, of her youth, and of her joy. She is a shadow of the self she was when in love; she gave everything to Wentworth and when he was gone, that effervescent spirit went with him. Now, she is of no consequence to anyone; ‘only Anne’; a figure in the background of everybody else’s life, not permitted to take first place anywhere except in Lady Russell’s heart, ironically the woman who was the cause of Anne’s ‘wretched’ change in the first place.

Anne’s refusal of Wentworth changed her life from one of hope, love, possibility and adventure to one of sadness, regret, loneliness and sacrifice. It ‘clouded every enjoyment of youth’. Her world is small; her friends few; her opportunities miniscule. The farthest she is permitted to go is to the next village to help her sister Mary, whose emotional life is one of shallow self interest that leads her nowhere but that Victorian Chaise-Longue of imaginary illness developed to stave off the boredom of provincial married life. As Anne’s world shrivels, so does her happiness; her appearance is ‘wretchedly changed’ because she has so little in her life that fills her heart with genuine joy.

When Wentworth arrives back in town, Anne’s appearance as well as her attitude changes. After the first conversation about the Crofts letting Kellynch Hall, the very possibility of Captain Wentworth being in the vicinity of her childhood home brings a flush to her normally wan cheeks. After the first awkward meetings are out of the way, the mere presence of him brings her back to life; her eyes sparkle, her cheeks are plumper and pinker, her confidence increases and other people’s opinions of her change. As Wentworth’s presence reawakens the love that lay dormant in her heart for so long, she re-engages with the world around her. She is admired by plenty of men; Mr Elliot and Captain Harville are certainly much taken with her, and Admiral Croft acknowledges her to be a very pretty young woman. She is desired and desirable; she is no longer ‘only Anne’. The hope that Wentworth brings with him; the hope of a life that will not revolve around the whims of her father and sisters, the hope of a life that is filled with love and respect and happiness, the hope of a life of independence and appreciation, changes Anne from the inside out.

It’s not just how Anne changes that makes Persuasion such an emotionally vital novel; it’s the way that Austen perfectly describes how it feels to be hopelessly in love. That feeling of excitement at going out to a party or gathering where you know he will be; the feeling of total boredom and disinterest in everything and everyone when you arrive and realise he is not there; the flash of vicious jealousy when you see him talking to someone else; the heart stopping joy when you catch him looking at you; the way your heart leaps and flutters when you realise he is coming forward to speak to you; the crushing disappointment when you are prevented from spending much time together in a crowded room – Austen paints it with a clarity that shows she must have experienced it all. When Anne realises that Wentworth is not going to marry Louisa, her heart beats with ‘senseless joy’. At the concert, Anne is consumed with ‘agitation’ while she waits for a look, a smile, something that confirms the suspicion that is starting to stir within her desperate, longing heart. The tension mounts and mounts until the glorious letter, and then we as readers, along with Anne, are allowed to finally rejoice in the glory of a love equally and beautifully shared between two people who should never have been separated for so long. We feel that Anne really has got what she deserved, because we have suffered with her from the very first page, and seen her blossom as hope wells up once more and is finally allowed to come to fruition.

It is a deep emotion that runs through this novel; one of experience, regret, and pain, and therefore one that resonates powerfully with the reader. We feel that Anne deserves her happiness, because she has suffered for it. Austen draws us into the depths of her heart and takes us from feeling small, unloved and lifeless to feeling beautiful, vibrant and full of joy. Anne is an everywoman; the life of her heart charts emotions we have all felt at some point or another.  Her happy ending, therefore, is something we can all share in, because it is something we all would want for ourselves. If Anne can achieve it, then perhaps so can we; that, I think, is the key to the beauty and the power of this special, lovely, wonderful novel – it makes you dare to, as Emily Dickinson would say, dwell in possibility.

Next week: Persuasion‘s Men….

32 comments

  1. Oh I agree that Austen must have experienced real love to have written about it the way she does in Persuasion. I wonder if she wrote the ending she had hoped for in her own life? Particularly poignant as she died soon after publication. I am very much enjoying the Persuasion posts thank you for organising this Rachel!

    1. I think perhaps she might have done…I’m glad that she had the chance to fall in love even though she clearly never got her truly happy ending. Thank you Nicola – it’s been a pleasure to be able to discuss this wonderful book with so many intelligent and thoughtful readers.

  2. Rachel, I disagree with you on one point – you say that Anne’s life is “one of sadness, regret, loneliness and sacrifice”. It seems to me that you devalue sacrifice as a negative thing, when I think it’s maybe her greatest strength. Perhaps you are referring to , e.g., when she’s told to stay home at Kellynch to get the place ready for the tenants, while the rest go to Bath (although she doesn’t want to go to Bath, anyhow) – that she’s bossed around by others. But that isn’t sacrifice – sacrifice implies willingness to give up one’s desires or plans for some other (perceived) good. “Marginalization” might be a word which describes her state. But her spirit of sacrifice is at the root of her wonderful character – it’s what gives her character! She’s not preoccupied with herself, so while she’s unhappy and disappointed, she still is able to think of others. Look at the way she draws Captain Benwick out. Or, the capable way she conducted herself when Louisa had the accident – that doesn’t come suddenly, but from a depth of character which develops over the years. In the book, I’m at the point when Louisa is improving – and I haven’t read it in so long, I’m not sure what’s in the book and what’s in the film. But, I’ve always been impressed by the scene at the concert (in the Amanda Root version) when she shows that she knows some Italian. Well, how did she learn that? And, when? So, while we think she wasn’t allowed to go out, maybe she got to the library and taught herself something – even though she was lonely and ignored as a nobody. She still quietly went along on her own, trying to make good use of her time. I assume she learned Italian after her breakup with Wentworth.

    I’m rambling, I’m afraid, but what I’m saying is she was beaten down, but her strength of character was still alive in there. She is a person who is so admirable to me – I’m so glad to be reading this again! What a good example she is! I love her. You’re so right about Jane Austen describing the emotions so perfectly – yes, perfect!

    Thanks for hosting this!

    1. Thank you for your thoughtful comment, Lisa. I don’t think I worded my post very well, as I completely agree with you! When I said ‘sacrifice’ I meant that Anne has to sacrifice so many of her own wishes because of the selfishness of others. I didn’t mean it in a negative sense about her character. Your point about her being marginalised is very true and I think that’s an excellent way to describe her situation.

      That’s a very good observation about the Italian – I noticed that but didn’t think much into it. You’re right – it can be easy to think that Anne does little with her time but actually she has obviously got a lot of interests and has taken responsibility for her own education – her conversations with Captain Harville demonstrate that too.

      I’m so glad you’re enjoying the read along and it’s a pleasure to be hosting it!

  3. I love reading along with you and reading your thoughts on this great book. During Anne’s Wenthworth-free years she had resigned herself to a life devoid of romantic love and sought instead to find happiness in the small things, her sisters children, sacrifice and duty. Small things may keep her going but the big thing, love, when it returns with such force into Anne’s quiet, and sheltered life it leaves me holding my breath whilst reading. A wonderful post, thank you.

    1. Thank you, Lilac! How lovely of you to say so. I’m so glad you have been enjoying the read along. It is such a tense book, isn’t it, because we so long for Anne to be happy…wonderful, wonderful book!

  4. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this post! It’s true that Austen has described Anne’s emotions in such a way that the reader is completely able to identify with Anne.

  5. I was with Anne, emotionally wise from the very beginning. I could feel the pain that she was going though, I am sure Austen realised that pain and I agree about your post when you know he could be in the room and might be near you, let alone speak to you. Then when he does and you know that it is no good, you have missed your chance. Anne has it all and in the end, everything works out for her, and I think it gives hope to all who read the book! It certainly did me. Emotions of all sorts are throughout this book, especially Anne.

    I am really enjoying this read-along and I have a post coming up on Wed on my blog, about the reference to Navy in the book.

  6. Have you ever noticed that Anne could be Fanny from Mansfield Park Version only the 2.0 version- new and improved? Both women are belittled and looked down on but whereas Fanny never won much of my sympathy, Anne does every time. Mansfield Park has always been a novel I’ve struggled with. Persuasion, never. I keep wondering if Fanny is a failed Anne and what JA learned in between those two novels that makes our emotional sympathies so deeply charged in Persuasion as it is not in Mansfield Park. I would love to hear your thoughts on this and anyone else who cares to chime in!

    1. This is a great point for discussion Catherine and I wish I had read Mansfield Park recently to be able to thrash this out! I remember the one time I did read Mansfield Park, I found it so dull that I never particularly wanted to read it again. This was because Fanny came across as such a sap – though she does have many similarities to Anne, I think her goody two shoes personality is what makes her so unpopular. Anne might be quiet and sensible but she’s no goody two shoes. I like the idea that Austen learned from Fanny and that is why Anne is such a good heroine – I must reread Mansfield Park soon to see what I think!

  7. What an interesting idea! Mansfield Park is not my favorite, and I’ve only read it once, so when I think of the story, it’s the latest version with the blonde girl – Billie something? I forget, but I like Fanny, and it’s curious to me how much animosity her character gets. But there is much similarity between them – you’re right! As a Catholic, when a character seems uncomplaining and sacrificial in their behavior, I usually find myself sympathizing with them, because it goes along with turning the other cheek, etc, i.e., what’s known as proper Christian behavior. So Fanny is a good girl who forgets herself and makes herself helpful to others. But she’s rather two dimensional, isn’t she? Anne has more dimension, and she is very well balanced – between her Christian understanding and her knowledge of herself. She knows who she is, I think.

    If I could be like Anne Elliot, that would be a good thing!! But I think you may be on to something there, Catherine! I wonder what Rachel will think of this idea.

    1. I agree, what an interesting idea! And I disagree slightly with your analysis of Fanny, in that I do not feel she is two dimensional, although for a long time I thought she was insipid and dull and it was only on a second reading I began to see a bit more of her. Fanny is perhaps Anne without the courage or, as you put it above so well, her sense of self. Fanny’s lack of courage is frequently mentioned, from what I remember – but then she has had a rather rougher time of it even than Anne, I think. She does not keep back anything for herself, she does not do anything equivalent to learning Italian. Really she is too passive, and her only flashes of spirit can be misinterpreted as weaselly or petty spite. But she is wise.

      Sorry to go on, but I think Fanny is Austen showing what too much self-sacrifice, too much goodness, can result in – utter stifling. She fits into the overall scheme of ‘Mansfield Park’. Anne is much more attractive and likeable, but then ‘Persuasion’ seems to me to have different intentions.

      You have definitely all persuaded me to reread ‘Persuasion’ now, but I have about 50 billion pages of Henry James to finish first so I won’t be joining in with this!

      1. Helen, you have persuaded me to re-read “Mansfield Park”! I need to give Fanny another try, I think. Your points are good ones – and she certainly did have a tough childhood.

    2. I am really enjoying this discussion and I wish I knew Mansfield Park better! I think Fanny is a bit too much of a wet blanket – she doesn’t have any spark and that is why she’s not as successful a heroine. While Anne does have the element of self sacrifice, she knows what she wants and she won’t be trampled over. Fanny, from what I remember, is a bit of a doormat. I must re-read Mansfield Park to see whether my opinion of her has changed. Mansfield Park definitely seems to be Austen’s most controversial book….another potential for a readalong perhaps!!

      1. I’m going to have to reread Mansfield Park as well. I can’t remember the last time I read it so that’s a bad sign. Loving all the various insights and points of view. Delightful!

  8. At the beginning of Chapter 17 Anne renews acquaintance with her former governess and hears from her of there being an old school-fellow in Bath (Mrs Smith).

    “Anne had gone unhappy to school, grieving for the loss of a mother whom she had dearly loved, feeling her separation from home, and suffering as a girl of fourteen, of strong sensibility and not high spirits, must suffer at such a time…” Probably explains Anne’s ability to understand Italian and speak knowledgeably about books etc.

    What an interesting discussion – thank you.

    1. Oh yes of course – thank you Sue. Though I do think Anne studied Italian independently – she mentions that she is a ‘poor scholar’ so I assume she is studying it alone – and she must have continued to read and take an interest in music, literature and general culture outside of her school days. Anne is clearly an intelligent and discerning woman and it’s interesting to note that the only book Sir Walter ever reads is the Peerage, which emphasises Anne’s difference from her family intellectually as well as socially.

  9. you sum it all up so perfectly. I think if Anne has shrink from Wentworth and all the other people around her, she might not end up as happy. what I like about Anne is that she never truly gave up on Wentworth. even when it seems Wentworth might marry Louisa. when she was having that conversation at the end with Harville, she clearly still has hope in being with Wentworth but I suppose if that conversation hasn’t taken place, Wentworth would not have written that letter.

    I think I’ve strayed off topic a bit. clearly Anne’s feeling is all over the pages. one only have to read her reaction to Wentworth’s presence.

  10. Oh Rachel, I so agree with you about that wonderful feeling of anticipation! Last night I was finally able to pick up where I left off in London at an embarrassing page 50. Lovers of Austen’s writing all know how this story ends up but that didn’t stop me from holding my breath, just waiting for Captain Wentworth to knock at the door in time for dinner. Imagine how Anne would have felt!?

    Looking forward to your thoughts on the men. Which reminds me of that youtube vignette featuring the men in Austen’s books played to the tune “It’s Raining Men”…guilty pleasure.

    1. I love that sense of anticipation! Such a special story you can’t help but love. I’m glad you got to start reading while you were in a very Autumnal London – the perfect setting!

      I haven’t seen that youtube video! I’ll have to go and check it out!

  11. What a brilliant discussion. And Rachel I so agree re. the way Anne becomes more and more animated as the book progresses.
    I’m struggling to articulate my contribution, but I’ll give it a go anyway. I’m thinking about ages … the heroine’s, Austen’s when she was writing, and the reader’s. When I first read Austen’s novels her heroines were only a little older than myself, then the same age, then a little younger … now they are the same ages as my children. And each time I have read the books I have perceived those young woman Austen created a little differently because each time my age, relative to theirs, has been different. Persuasion, of course, is Austen’s most mature work, both the author and the central character are older than before.
    The word that I probably associate most with Persuasion, if we’re talking emotion, is tender. Austen has a different understanding of life, of love, she is looking back to a degree she hadn’t previously. To me the book is a more tender story than say Mansfield Park, although lacking none of Austen’s wit and sparkle. I’d say Fanny isn’t a failed Anne so much as a similar product of an earlier pen. Though in many ways the two books defy comparison … thematically they are very, very different, Fanny is as she is because making her that way served Austen’s particular purpose for the novel she lives within, ditto Anne. But the more mature Austen was more sympathetic toward Anne than she had been toward Fanny. I love Mansfield Park, but I can still see why it is so unloved. As Persuasion often has been. They are less frivolous novels then their counterparts. I think Mansfield Park is, in part at least, about reaping what you sow, about consequences, where Persuasion is about second chances. And I’d hazard that the fullest understanding of the significance of second chances and all that they imply comes only when you’ve been around a while.
    And I’d apply tender in another way too. In Mansfield Park Fanny is tender, easily bruised and crushed. If Anne is made of sterner stuff maybe it’s because Austen has come to understand the often hidden strength of character that the easily marginalised (love that Lisa) need if they are to survive?
    I’m probably rambling so I’ll stop there. But thanks again Rachel for hosting this😀

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