Saturday, February 18, 2017
Further thoughts on the darkness of Persuasion and how it differs from other Austen novels
I continue to be struck by the darkness of Austen's last novel, Persuasion, especially in the scenes that take place in Bath. Not only the pervasive snobbery that surrounds, smothers, and almost ruins the life of the herione, Anne Elliot - Her father and her so-called friend always making judgements about people based on their social status, their looks (Anne's father is bizarrely obsessed with how handsome or good-looking people are, not only women but men also, including most of all himself) but also the ever-present awareness of illness, death, and poverty. Anne spends some time visiting with a friend from school days, a woman just a few years older than she (i.e., about 30) who seems like an old woman: She'd married a man who died young, hard run through all their money, and now she's living in a crappy little room in abject poverty, suffering from various ailments that she hopes the waters of Bath can treat. And the Elliot family can't understand why Anne would spend any time visiting with such nobody. We know of course that this novel is heading for a comic-romantic conclusion, that Anne will marry Captain Wentworth, whom she should have married 7 years back if her family hadn't dissuaded her because he didn't seem to be of suitable rank. But there's so much sorrow and betrayal on the way to this conclusion - nothing like the bright confidence of her other social romances, where, yes, poverty was always a threat, especially to women without property (see Sense and Sensibility), but where there was also a brightness, where they characters who oppose or set off the heroine are generally light and comic (Kitty and Lydia, in P&P for ex.) rather than truly conniving and socially obnoxious. The eccentricity of, say, Emma's father, with his hypochondria, is quaint and comic and easily dealt with or dismissed - whereas Anne Elliot's father, with his obsession with beauty and social class, is narrow-minded, bigoted, and malicious. He has practically ruined his Anne's life; will he get his comeuppance? Will he grow in scope and stature? Or will Anne just move beyond him narrow world view and begin her own life?