Reading the collections, week 17: Jane Austen’s Persuasion

“I’ve never read anything by Jane Austen. I repeat: I’ve never read anything by Jane Austen!”

Title page of the first edition of Persuasion, published jointly as volumes 3 & 4 with Northanger Abbey.

Title page of the first edition of Persuasion, published jointly as volumes 3 & 4 with Northanger Abbey.

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).

Front cover of the 1897 edition of Northanger Abbey and Persuasion, featuring illustrations by Hugh Thomson.

Front cover of the 1897 edition of Northanger Abbey and Persuasion, featuring 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.

Some biting commentary on the appearance of Sir Walter Elliot’s ‘companion’, Mrs Clay. From St Andrews’ copy of the first edition of Persuasion.

Some biting commentary on the appearance of Sir Walter Elliot’s ‘companion’, Mrs Clay. From St Andrews’ copy of the first edition of Persuasion.

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.

The gossip goes on, and on, and on. From St Andrews’ copy of the first edition of Persuasion.

The gossip goes on, and on, and on. From St Andrews’ copy of the first edition of Persuasion.

Captain Wentworth rescues Anne from her ghastly nephew. From the 1897 illustrated edition of Persuasion.

Captain Wentworth rescues Anne from her ghastly nephew. From the 1897 illustrated edition of Persuasion.

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.

Miss Musgrove down for the count, after tossing herself off of some steps. From the 1897 illustrated edition of Persuasion.

Miss Musgrove down for the count, after tossing herself off some steps. From the 1897 illustrated edition of Persuasion.

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.

Captain Wentworth expresses his fullest emotions to Anne Elliot … with a note. From the 1897 illustrated edition of Persuasion.

Captain Wentworth expresses his fullest emotions to Anne Elliot … with a note. From the 1897 illustrated edition of Persuasion.

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?

darylreading_1I 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!

-DG

9 responses to “Reading the collections, week 17: Jane Austen’s Persuasion

  1. It’s actually very simple- you like your psychology to be handed to you on a plate, so that you can passively consume it- whereas Jane Austen gives you the reader real life as it is actually lived which requires active judgment and uncertainty, and subtle clues to complex obscured truth.

    Stick to your way of reading, Jane Austen is too subtle for you.

    • Goodness Arnie – the guy has the right to his own opinion! – I thought he was quite funny actually – and I am sure as he works in Special Collections at St Andrews that he is of sound judgment and active intelligence – not _everyone_ likes Jane Austen – we don’t have to put them down for it… just encourage another reading just to be sure – I know for a fact you have to read Northanger Abbey at least three times to get it… Persuasion maybe two…

      • I’m sorry, Deb, he didn’t just say he didn’t enjoy reading Jane Austen, he criticized her writing as being seriously deficient in several ways–if someone wrote like that about Shakespeare, would you say he’s entitled to his opinion without rebutting it?

        As for Northanger Abbey, did you get to the reading in which you see that beneath the parody of the Gothic is an anti-parody that demonstrates that Catherine is the sharpest elf in the novel, because she sees most deeply to the Gothic horrors of everyday English marriage? 😉

  2. Jane Austen alas would little approve of what I feel compelled to say … I have never encountered such a shallow reading of a novel. Subtle humor and irony unappreciated,
    exquisite characterization overlooked,
    best of our human values unnoticed and the elegance of the language not heard…I think I am sorry for you: all that is complex, multi-layered and subtle you are missing .

  3. It is great to see that our blog remains provocative! However this post simply represents the view of one member of staff and in no way reflects the Library or University’s approach to Austen! Some of us love Austen!

    • Yes! you will find anything knocking Jane Austen will get noticed and commented upon, so look out! I thought the blog post quite delightful – and am anxious to read your Austen-fan colleague’s take on Hemingway – in the meantime, try at least to read Pride & Prejudice, you might be pleasantly surprised… I posted about your post on an Austen facebook page, and a friend responded: “Elinor agreed to it all, for she did not think he deserved the compliment of rational opposition.” [from ‘Sense and Sensibility’] – you will likely hear more such Austen quotes in her own defense…

  4. I love Austen more than the next person and I’m always sad when someone doesn’t fall madly in love with her, but it comes down to what you enjoy reading. And I do say kudos to him for reading it when so many people flat out refuse because of their presumptions.

    I think for me the problem with the reading wasn’t the lack of love for Austen. It was the sexist overtones, yes I get this is a post in jest and I even smiled a few times, and the macho posturing, as if allowing the thought of liking Austen would infringe upon his masculinity. Perhaps the reader would have been better served reading a first edition of a gender studies work or a pamphlet on destitute women.

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