Saturday, January 5, 2013

Persuasion: Part 1 of 4

"The rapid increase of the crow's foot about Lady Russell's temples had long been a distress to him."

Persuasion begins with some history and some humor, which provides some important background to the story.  The novel opens with Sir Walter Elliot trying to reassure himself of his importance and standing, which (from the wise eyes of 2013) might seem silly and boring, but really helps set a base for the situation and gives a hint at Austen's humor at the same time.

First, the history: Remember in the intro when I mentioned the importance of Napoleon?  Not even Sir Walter realizes the great shift that this war has made in the importance of the gentry versus the importance of the newly wealthy (such as Admiral Croft) though he feels threatened by it all the same.
"In 1789, the year the French Revolution cast a long shadow over the wealth and privilege enjoyed by landed elites like Sir Walter, he and his wife also lose their only son, whose stillborn death substantially increases the possibility that Sir Walter's cherished title will pass out of his immediate family and to an estranged relation, Mr. William Elliot."
(from my annotated edition)
He's a dandy, all right.
(Buy yourself a print of the Prince Regent!)
Why is all this so dreadfully vital to the story?  Because Anne Elliot comes from privilege, and her beloved Captain Wentworth holds only a chance in "a most uncertain profession."  She behaves as propriety would have her behave, and breaks their engagement.  After 8 long years of repressed affections and brewing bitterness, the couple's fortunes have been reversed: Anne is a spinster, and Wentworth has built a desirable fortune.  In our time, being free to marry and change our station in life with no ostracizing and criticizing from society, it may be hard to understand the very real, very severe impact these issues had on life.  Happiness was no easy thing to achieve.

Second, the humor: So the funny thing about this, is that the Baronetage (the book from the opening lines of the novel) is not as grand as it sounds.  According to my edition, "Baronets were ranked above knights but below barons and were technically classed as commoners (not members of the peerage)."  The volume was created in order to raise money by making smaller men feel more important, and judging from Sir Walter's adoration, it has worked.

"Vanity was the beginning and the end of Sir Walter Elliot's character; vanity of person and of situation.  ...Few women could think more of their personal appearance than he did."

So here we are introduced to a character to be ridiculed, immediately contrasted by his late wife: a character to be admired.  We quickly find their eldest daughter classified as being very much like her father, and Anne, our herione, as much like her mother: "very inferior value" (see? funny stuff already!)  Having "an elegance of mind and sweetness of character," Anne "was nobody with either father or sister—she was only Anne."

Drawing Room Scene, engraved by Anker Smith
They're way too cozy for Kellynch; more like Uppercross perhaps.

Throughout the novel, Austen's wit is a vehicle for her derision of how shallow people can be, but also as a cover to belie the gravity of a situation or the depth of feeling.  I'm a fan of juxtaposition in general, making Austen's writing all the more delightful for me.

"She had been forced into prudence in her youth, she learned romance as she grew older—the natural sequel of an unnatural beginning."

Having had to grow into a confidence in my own judgement and opinions, and having been in the habit of collecting opinions and weighing them before making decisions, I've always closely identified with Anne.  I love how Austen describes Anne's inner turmoil—the anguish of being in "perpetual estrangement" when she knows that nobody understands him as she does, and knows also that it is utterly impossible that his mind could remain unvisited by similar memories.

So, I've always identified with Anne, but it wasn't until this time reading Persuasion, however, that I realized that Cpt. Wentworth also has things in common with my husband!  He's brilliant, ambitious, and when we married (quite young) he had nothing promising success or security except his own confidence.  Centuries of social progress on our side, our wedding still caused a bit of a stir (he was but 17!) and I'm thankful that my parents stood by me and supported me.  (No wonder I love this book so!)

One major difference, however, between my love and this fictional one, is that Wentworth is rather headstrong—quite unwilling to pay notice to his feelings or consider other perspectives.  He obviously still has Anne on the brain, but has decided he needs to protect his own hurt and pride, refusing to consider that Anne might still love him as well.

Humor, true feeling, and philosophy of life—does it get any better?  Needless to say, I'm enjoying the re-read tremendously.

5 comments:

  1. What a great post! I'm seeing this novel lacking Austen's trademark wit and maybe demonstrating more of the dark underbelly of society. There is a much darker tone to this novel.

    I love the story about your courtship and marriage. I have a cousin that got married to her sweetheart at 16 and they are still married and in love 40 years later. Everybody said it wouldn't last.

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    1. Have you read Northanger Abbey? (Wallace will be doing a read along of it later this year) It is so completely the opposite of Persuasion, and yet completely wonderful. Persuasion really feels contemplative and regretful, mourning love lost, whereas Northanger Abbey is so boldly and openly humorous that it is quite the comparison.

      I had an aunt and a family friend both pretty upset that my parents let me wed so young, yet here we are, almost 19 years later, healthy, happy, and with no loss of success. My parents said they decided to support me because they knew I'd do it anyway, but I wasn't nearly as confident in my own strength of will.

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    2. Well, just so you know, I think what you did was super cool. You declared your love and remained true to it. I've always admired women (and couples) that have done that. I was late to the game at 28 and my husband was 38 when we married.

      I'm thinking about doing all of Wallace's read-a-longs this year although Crime and Punishment is scaring me a little.

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  2. What a wonderfully insightful post! I'm looking forward to rereading Persuasion soon and your thoughts have me all excited. Looking forward to following your progression through the novel.

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    1. It's amazing to me how a novel can be so new and exciting, even upon rereading it. This is the 3rd (4th?) time I've read the book, and still I am finding new things to love and appreciate. The annotated version I have is a delight also, with the notes and pictures included. I've especially enjoyed the notations regarding other authors, as it helps me put Austen's writing in the big picture of Literature in general. Fun times!

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