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!

A Truth Universally Acknowledged: 33 Great Writers On Why We Read Jane Austen ed. Susannah Carson

I know I’m supposed to be reading American literature, but this sounded irresistible when it came out, and it’s been on my library hold list for weeks, and when it finally came in…I couldn’t help myself! I have been immersed in it for days, actually looking forward to going to work so that I could read it on the train!

I am a self confessed Janeite; I wrote about this a few months ago, just after visiting Chawton Cottage. I love her books like old friends, and return to them often. Every re-read adds a new layer of richness to my appreciation of these novels, as different things strike me anew and my increasing age enables me to gain a deeper understanding of and insight into the struggles and joys of the deeply beloved characters who come so alive to me on the pages. Reading this collection of wonderful essays was such an enlightening and pleasurable and exciting experience, and I am now desperate to pick up everything Jane Austen wrote and have a Jane Austen marathon, taking the insights of some of these authors and bringing them with me as I read. Obviously not all of the essays are as good as the others, and some are a little too academic and clinical for my liking, but you can easily skip over those and move onto the better ones.

Susannah Carson has brought a depth to Northanger Abbey that I never considered as being there before; far from just a mockery of gothic novels, it is, she argues, a mockery of the novel form itself, and a very clever one at that. Perhaps the marriage of Catherine and Henry is supposed to be unbelievable, and Austen purposely places a very artificial romance at the heart of her novel to poke fun at the general artifice of romance. I like this take on things, and as I haven’t reread Northanger Abbey in years, I’m now keen to do so, and see whether I think Carson’s comments ring true. Martin Amis, in a wonderfully funny essay, highlights the spirit, sociability and character reformation in Pride and Prejudice, and the irony of having a silly, frivolous character in Mrs Bennett, who actually turns out to be right in her machinations. Forcing her daughter to catch cold does result in two very fine marriages, and so really, is she as silly as she seems? Amy Heckerling writes a fascinating essay on how she transported the cast of Emma from 19th century Highbury to 21st century Beverly Hills in the movie Clueless, exploring the timeless quality of Austen’s novels in the process.

Most of the other essays touch on similar topics; Jane’s morals, her manners, her emphasis on wit, her small and precise milieu, her reasons for not writing about the immediate political environment of her novels, her lack of emphasis on description of appearances and surroundings – our impressions of ‘Jane’s Regency World’ all come from the televised costume dramas, not her words. They are all interesting, all eye opening, all full of passion and appreciation for this most beloved author whose novels have endured over two centuries of massive social change, and are still just as enjoyed as they were on the day they were published. What makes them so timeless? Well, the humanity of them. As J B Priestley argues, if Jane Austen had written about war and political unrest, her novels would be dry and dusty and too tied to their specific point in time. By making them about people; their personalities, their mistakes, their foibles, their romances; she has made them completely and utterly relatable to any human being at any point in time. I don’t know what it was like to live through the Napoleonic wars, but I do know what it’s like to love. Tolstoy is admired, but adored? I think not. Jane Austen knew what she was doing. She was not a trivial, uninformed woman. She was an intelligent, far thinking one. She knew what really mattered to people, and here we are, still nodding with recognition at Emma’s soon to be regretted smugness; crying at Captain Wentworth’s letter; rejoicing at Elinor’s realisation that Edward is free to marry her after all; swooning at Mr Darcy’s gruff proposal; railing with frustration at Edmund’s blindness to Fanny’s purity over Mary Crawford’s artifice, and smiling indulgently at Catherine’s naivety, two hundred years later.

Do read this collection, if you can. It is a wonderful homage to Jane Austen, and I know I will certainly be buying my own copy to dip in and out of often.

Jane Austen, and me

On Saturday I went to Jane Austen’s house in Chawton, Hampshire. It’s where she spent her last eight years, was reportedly at her happiest, and wrote her novels Mansfield Park, Emma, and Persuasion.  I found it a wonderful experience going to ‘her’ house, and far, far superior to my rather disappointing trip to the Jane Austen Society’s house in Bath, which I visited last summer. The Austens’ house, sitting at the junction of the two roads going through the village, is perfectly situated for a woman interested in observing others. Anyone going in and out of the village would have passed by Jane’s parlour window, where she would sit writing at her tiny (it really is tiny!) writing table. The Austens lived at the heart of this small, rural community, and this settled, comfortable, peaceful existence near friends and family and not far from where Jane grew up, would provide the perfect atmosphere for Jane to write her final three novels.

Chawton is a beautiful, quintessentially English village. There are rows of teeny tiny cottages with thatched rooves and little wooden dormer windows; ivy covered, grander brick houses, standing in their own  grounds; a village hall; paddocks for horses; a large church with moss covered, centuries old gravestones, and finally, the grand Chawton House, Jane’s brother’s home, a magnificent, pretty flint mansion that sits apart from the rest of the village, gazing benevolently over the land it once used to own. I could easily see, despite the swarms of tourists that now fill the street, taking photos and talking excitedly, how happy Jane must have been here. I could also appreciate what inspiration she must have found, especially in the writing of Emma, from the motley crew of villagers, a mix of poverty stricken cottagers and more well to do gentry, living side by side in this delightful slice of the English countryside.

I loved walking around the beautiful gardens, planted with a variety of fragrant and colourful flowers, that surround the Austen’s house. Inside, the cool, light filled rooms filled me with joy, as I pondered how pleasant, how comfortable, how lovely, life must have been here. However, what impacted me the most was the sheer number of people who had descended on the village on a sunny day in July, anxious to see where their favourite novels had been written, to touch the walls their heroine had touched, to walk the paths she would have trod as she moved from room to room within her house. There was a conference on, at Chawton House, and almost one hundred enthusiastic American visitors had come especially, sporting their name badges and talking with such enthusiasm about the novelist who meant so much to them that they had come all the way across the Atlantic just to set eyes on where she had once lived. It made me stop, and think about what it is that inspires such devotion, such interest, such affection, when it comes to Jane Austen? Why is she so enduringly popular, so mythologised, so sanctified, almost? I don’t know about everyone else, but it made me think about why I feel the way I do about Jane Austen, and why it meant so much to me to see her home and her surroundings. So here it is, the story of Jane Austen, and me.

It wasn’t love at first sight, I can’t claim that. I was a precocious child, and read constantly from the age of 3, but my tastes were not exactly literary. At 11, tired of me reading nothing but Babysitter’s Club books, my mum bought me a copy of Emma and told me to read it. I had heard of Jane Austen, of course, and anxious to be ‘well read’, and impress my English teacher, I eagerly began reading. I barely managed to make it half way. Everyone spoke in ridiculous, long winded, non sensical sentences, nothing exciting happened, and I couldn’t make head nor tail of what was going on. Poor Emma got shoved on a shelf, I reached for the latest Babysitter’s Club instalment, and Jane got ne’er a backwards glance. Fast forward three years or so and I was on holiday in a rainy Ireland with my mother and her best friend, insufferably bored, as only teenagers can be, with no TV and nothing to do. The only book in the house was, as luck would have it, Emma. I languidly opened the pages, and to my surprise, a world of colour, of hilarity, of nuances and sideward glances, of love, and laughter, and wonderful, witty prose, sprang up before me.

How could I not have seen this before?! I wondered, as I devoured the pages. I laughed out loud, I gasped in shock, I wept tears of joy. Jane Austen knew, she understood, the vagaries of the human soul. She had a gift for the absurd, a perfect eye for character, and a deliciously acidic pen. With an arched eyebrow and a sardonic smile, she brought to life people who were real; recognisable, three dimensional, flawed yet loveable characters, who were fresh and modern and alive, who felt deeply, who loved and yearned and suffered, who laughed and wept and lived lives that were not so very different from my own. Her world was not something that was archaic, irrelevant, or boring, as I had once thought, and I knew that I would never be able to get enough of it. As soon as Emma‘s pages were closed, I sought out more; Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, Northanger Abbey, Persuasion, Mansfield Park…all exquisite, in their own ways, and all filled with the same magical qualities; the same lively, critical, yet kindly, pen.

Now, at the age of 24, my copies of Jane Austen’s novels are tatty, well thumbed, adored belongings that I will never part with. Each has been read several times, and there is no balm greater for when my soul is troubled than one of these precious volumes. I think this is why I love Jane so; whenever my life has spun out of my control, whenever my heart has been broken, my hopes dashed, my disappointments greater than my joys, she has been there, and what’s more, she knows how I feel. How can any woman who has ever loved and lost read of Anne Elliott in Persuasion without a pang, without tears of recognition, and without whoops of joy, her own heart renewed with hope, when at last, Anne gets her greatest wish? Who can fail to understand Marianne’s devastation at Captain Willoughby’s heartless treatment, and who can’t share Elinor’s tears as she fears her life has crumbled underneath her? Who hasn’t felt Emma’s shame as Mr Knightley, her greatest friend, reproaches her for her thoughtless behaviour? And who hasn’t been a Miss Bates, or a Harriet, feeling small and insignificant, desperate for a word of kindness, a saviour?

The whole of life is within these six novels; the hopes, the fears, the joys, the disappointments, the loves, the losses, the friendships, and the laughter that mark all of our lives in some form or another. Her words encourage, inspire, motivate, soothe, comfort, and heal. Many a time I have opened my favourite Jane Austen, Persuasion, with a heavy heart, and by the end, I am soaring on the wings of possibility again, and rejoicing in the beauty of life. No, my life might not turn out perfectly, and I may not get the happy ever after I desire, but Jane Austen helps me to believe that it could, and she also reminds me, through her own life, and those of her characters, that it doesn’t matter if I don’t, because life is not just about a wedding day, but about taking chances, about loving everyone with all your heart, about friendship, about passion, about kindness, and about personal growth and redemption. Romance does not just exist between lovers, it exists everywhere around us. Romance is in the beauty of a dew drenched lawn; a quiet moment spent sitting with a cup of tea in the early morning, when the world is at peace; a brisk walk through country lanes; a pleasant family meal, sharing food and laughter; and the intimate, understanding conversations held between close friends. Life is a constant romance between the soul and the world it exists within, and it is this everyday romance, this quiet beauty we can find in the ups and downs of ordinary life, that Jane Austen brings to life effortlessly on her pages. I wouldn’t be without her books for the world; they have contributed to who I am. That is why I love Jane Austen, and why I felt so happy as I toured the beautiful house she lived in. She must have found peace there;  joy, and contentment. I am glad, because that is what she has brought to me, and I want her to have felt the same, to have been happy, to have enjoyed her life, as she has encouraged me to enjoy mine.

If you’ve never read Jane Austen, or have read her once, and been underwhelmed, I want to encourage you to give her a try, or another one, if necessary. On each re-read, the experience gets richer. Characters become dearer, witticisms become funnier, nuances previously missed jump out afresh. Look beyond the antiquated language and the uneventful plots compared to today’s page turners and you will find absolute brilliance, and words that will become treasured companions as you journey along the road of life.