“I’ve never read anything by Jane Austen. I repeat: I’ve never read anything by Jane Austen!”
This is how a conversation started with my colleague, Elizabeth, when deciding who would help organise an event on 19th century women authors last autumn. What followed was a heated debate on the merits of Victorian upstairs/downstairs literature. This ended in a challenge that if I read a work by Austen for this year’s blog, then Elizabeth would read something purely American and oozing with testosterone (alas, we have no important editions of Hemingway in our rare collections!). Elizabeth chose for me Austen’s Persuasion (of which St Andrews has both the 1818 first edition published jointly with Northanger Abbey and an 1897 edition of the pair with illustrations by Hugh Thomson).
A bit of my personal-reading-habits background, dear reader. In the summer before my senior year of high school, we were assigned three novels for summer reading – Hardy’s Tess of the d’Ubervilles, Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, and Chopin’s The Awakening. My 17 year-old, fly-fishing, sci-fi film-watching, Frisbee-golfing, Midwest American-self had very little connection to these books, and I resented having to commit to reading them during my summer break! This experience has forever clouded my opinion of 19th century literature (except for Poe, Fenimore Cooper, and, most recently, Stevenson), and especially of tales of love and of the grand lost upper class. I know this is probably totally unfair, but it’s just how my taste in literature was formed. For pleasure I read classic and modern fiction, science fiction and fantasy, all the Hemingway that I have room on the shelves for, and, most recently I’ve been enjoying Fleming’s Bond series.
So, I came to Persuasion with less than a clean slate. Here’s my opinion – spoiler alert and Austen fans beware – I found this book really, really boring! Sir Walter Elliot, with a vast estate and three daughters, has mismanaged his keep and must scheme to retain his status in society by renting out his great house Kellynch Hall. Instead of exploring the emotions of having to give up one’s ancestral lands due to poverty etc., Austen’s characters instead spend their time gossiping about their peers’ appearance (‘ghastly freckles!’ and, oh my, sailors that have sun tans!) and about the benefits of the society to be found in Bath where the Elliots are to live once Kellynch Hall has been let. Anne, our protagonist, moves to stay with her younger sister, Mary, down the road in Uppercross, and falls into the daily grind of breakfast gossip, post-breakfast gossip, lunch-time gossip, etc. that is the focus of her sister’s life.
Gossip topics in Persuasion include: who is moving into Kellynch Hall; who are the best suitors of Mary’s two sister-in-laws, the Miss Musgroves (who are both so underdeveloped in character that one name will do for both); how long a walk one should take; what corner of the house you can hide your annoying children in (not really); what type of carriage someone is driving. Austen ratchets up the drama a notch when she introduces Captain Frederick Wentworth, an eligible bachelor from Anne’s past, whom she had been persuaded by her family to jilt eight years previously. But the plot continues to be stuck in a gossip-land quagmire (“who will be invited to dinner?” ,“what was she wearing?”, “surely that man is below your station!”) for at least another 50 pages before the only semblance of real action takes place and emotions bubble briefly to the surface: a group of these upper-class youngsters (imagine the Scooby-Doo gang, only in evening dress) take a road trip to Lyme and one of the Miss Musgroves who is desperately trying to impress Captain Wentworth jumps off a pier step and knocks herself out.
After another 50 pages of to-ing and fro-ing and lots of very upperclass beating around the bush, Anne finds herself in Bath high society, having rejoined her father and her elder sister, Elizabeth, at their new family apartments. Here Anne is courted by her cousin (eugh!), finds an old high school friend, and eventually discovers that Captain Wentworth only ever had eyes for her. The climax of the book reveals Captain Wentworth handing Anne a letter divulging his true feelings for her (all of 20 lines). The good Captain and Anne finally get a few fleeting moments to spend time alone together – in public, walking up a street, – but just when Austen could let the emotional floodgates open so that we could find out how the lovebirds actually feel and what they say to each other, the author cuts to summary exposition of their exchange and the book is wrapped up in a quick dénouement.
Now, I understand that many of the characters and events in this book show Austen putting her tongue very firmly into her cheek and writing some truly biting satire. I understand the importance of the tropes of old money versus new money, insular thinking versus adventure on the high seas (Wentworth being a navy man who made his fortune in the Napoleonic Wars). Why couldn’t these characters just say or do what they thought, or what they gossiped about, and get the ball rolling? Why does all of the true, real emotion in the book have to be repressed beneath black ties and dinner parties? Why did Austen not give us the culminating exchange between Wentworth and Anne in dialogue?
I had to fight not to put down this book, choose another, and start again for this blog post. However, the challenge and a very large packet of liquorice-allsorts powered me through the last 100 pages. I think I’ll be lining up my next Fleming novel as holiday reading to cleanse the palette. I might also keep my eye on the market for a good copy of Farewell to Arms to add to our collections for my Austen-fan colleague’s part of our bargain!