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A daily record of what I'm thinking about what I'm reading

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Thursday, February 16, 2017

Austen's Persuasion: One clueless character and one who can't speak his mind

Preparing for next meeting of Book Group have been re-reading Jane Austen's Persuasion (1816), her last completed novel, one I haven't read in at least 20 years. In a way all of Austen's novels are of a piece, ensemble social romances that play out within a limited setting and that always concern uniting partners and families of the English landed class (sometimes wealthy, sometimes with minor titles, but always by most standards "comfortable" - they employ servants rather than serve others) with few if any professional obligations. Is it fair to say that Persuasion is more difficult to follow than other Austen novels; have others had the same experience? Austen, as is typical, goes through the litany of characters in the family at the center of this novel, the Elliots (funny for me to type that), and identify each with his or her personality trait or quirk. As is also typical, the father is deeply flawed - in this case an incredible social snob and narcissist. It takes a while before we settle on Anne as the heroine, and in the first few chapters many characters with a complex web of relationships - in-laws, cousins, nieces and nephews, et al. - appear - it's sometimes hard to remember which character is which. But as to the central characters, once it's under way, there's no doubt - Anne and Captain Wentworth, a naval officer just home from the war - are destined for each other. Anne typifies other Austen heroines in that she is extremely wise and perceptive about everyone else's loves relationships and manners but not about her own; Emma was the prototype here, and the great movie adaptation had it exactly right in the title: Clueless. So it gets a little tiresome as we're so award that Wentworth still carries a torch for Anne (they had been engaged 7 years back but broke it off because Mr. Elliot thought Wentworth wasn't worthy of his daughter); everything he says - such as, I hardly would have recognized her after all these years - she completely misinterprets, and as for Wentworth, he is dumbstruck or maybe just dumb and can't quite come out and say anything positive or direct to Anne. Well, if the guy could speak his mind, we wouldn't have this novel (or maybe any social-romance novel).

2 comments:

  1. Hi, Elliot --
    I think that Anne's misinterpretation of Wentworth's comment(s) reflects a very common characteristic of people, esp. perhaps people who are somewhat insecure and unsure how others (esp. those that they care for) feel about them. One of Austen's greatest abilities is to show us the interior fears and insecurities of people; and while the reader may think he/she "knows" what the various characters feel but haven't expressed, of course the characters themselves don't know...
    Also -- in speaking of Wentworth's silence, you discount his resentment and hurt from his earlier rejection by Anne; and his personality, in any case, is not an open, touchy-feely one, as it were. To answer your question: I didn't have trouble following the plot at the beginning, but perhaps I'm in the minority.

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  2. Points well taken, and I will think about your insights as I finish reading this novel. But I still sometimes want to reach into it and shake these characters by the shoulder: Wake up!

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