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….