Wednesday, 22 February 2017
THOUGHTS ON JANE AUSTEN'S 'PERSUASION'
Jane Austen began writing Persuasion on 8 August 1815, a day when she was visited by her niece Anna Lefroy with her husband Ben – the son of Jane's deceased former friend Mrs. Lefroy. The young couple were on their way from Hendon to their new home near Chawton. There is a possibility that Lady Russell could have been inspired by Mrs. Lefroy. (Interestingly, the Lefroys' predecessor at Ashe Rectory had been a Revd. Dr. Russell.)
Technically, Emma is superior to Persuasion: it has a splendid portrait gallery, it is full of life, it does not depend on contrivances or improbabilities. In Persuasion there are longueurs and some clumsiness, a slow beginning, a need of more dialogue, a too-convenient story-within-a-story (Mrs. Smith's). Yet Persuasion stirs the emotions in a way that Emma does not.
There are some wonderful scenes (Lyme, the Octagon Room concert), poignant moments (the first meeting of Anne and Wentworth) and sublime inspiration (the means of the proposal – that letter appeared only in Jane's revised version of the chapter).
(The situation in which a man secretly communicated with a lady by passing a letter to her had occurred in The Midnight Bell by Francis Lathom - one of the gothic novels recommended by Isabella Thorpe in Northanger Abbey.)
The great strength of this novel is the emotional depth of Anne. It would be difficult to find anywhere in literature a better portrait of a woman continuing to love, when hope has almost gone.
There are some similarities between Persuasion and King Lear, in the sense that both move a protagonist relying on false values, based on essentially meaningless social and political commonplaces to a state of spiritual devastation and then to a reintegration, this time with sound values. There are in both a vain, selfish old man with three daughters - one good and two decidedly less than good. However, the central character becomes the daughter rather than the father - Cordelia rather than Lear. Anne is the Lear of this tale. She regains a sense of perspective by going into the world of the slightly less exalted humbler characters - the Harvilles and Mrs. Smith.
Jane's tone is always comic, even when the material seems improbable or intractable. Take the death of Mrs. Churchill in Emma. The author describes convincingly how people react, yet we cannot read it without smiling, especially at the words 'Mrs Churchill, after being disliked at least twenty-five years, was now spoken of with compassionate allowances. In one point she was fully justified. She had never been admitted before to be seriously ill. The event acquitted her of all the fancifulness and all the selfishness of imaginary complaints'. Similarly, Anne Elliot's love for Wentworth is described with an exquisite sympathy, but Jane is not blinded to the ironic implications: when Lady Russell looks out of the carriage, Anne is sure her eyes are fixed on Wentworth. In reality, her ladyship is inspecting some curtains.