Sunday, June 03, 2007

Satisfying Also-Ran

Persuasion, by Jane Austen, Read by Nadia May, Blackstone Audiobooks,

I’ve not read this novel since college, over ten years back now, nor have I seen the excellent adaptation in nearly as long. Yet, for reasons that no longer seem clear, Jane Austen’s Persuasion always struck me as one of her more profoundly philosophical works, as important among her works as the other concept titled books Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility. It’s quieter, less merry than those two, closer in spirit to Mansfield Park in many ways, yet like the two above-mentioned, it focuses itself on the manifestations of an idea, all the character being plagued by, influenced by, and toyed with persuasion.

It’s a fitting title and it neatly dovetails with those novels even if Austen had never intended this specific one. We watch throughout the novel’s brisk pace the various ways persuasion is used and misused, curtailed or abused. A more fitting title would be hard to imagine, though one could sympathize with an author not wishing to so overtly tip her hand.

Within the book’s very first pages, we are introduced to the titular theme. Having overspent all his life, the widower Sir Walter Elliot must retrench in order to avoid ruin. His dead wife’s friend and his daughter’s godmother, Lady Russell comes up with a plan of spending and saving. This good lady presents it to Anne Elliot, Sir Walter’s younger daughter, who draws up a bit more stringent of a plan. The two hope to persuade Anne’s father to follow these rules. He ignores them, and we are to see how from this refusal so many other things fall out. He and his eldest daughter Elizabeth fail ever to see how they could live other than they do, the two of them a self-completing loop of persuasion, each confirming in the other already held prejudices.

Likewise, young Anne is not helpless in the face of what the novel is all about. Years preceding these current events, Anne was persuaded by her father and Lady Russell to break off her association with young Frederick Wentworth. Neither party thought he was quite the thing, no prospects, you see. And this is what leads to the emotionalism and overwrought feelings present at their next meeting some eight years later. Thus the two major movements of the book come from unsuccessful good persuasion and successful bad persuasion.

(Not necessarily that for the time Anne’s father or her dear friend Lady Russell are in the wrong. Lowly naval officers or the like with no prospects and little else to recommend them save a young girl’s heart litter Austen’s novels often wreaking mischief.)

And much as in many of Austen’s other works, we will see older couples, courting couples, love doomed, love thwarted, and lovers reunited. As Marianne Dashwood grew ill and was courted by Colonel Brandon, Persuasion too has its impetuous and flighty young lass felled by illness and forced to reevaluate her life and her actions. And like other books by the same author, there will be military men, curates, inheritances, double-dealings, behind the scene shenanigans, and so on.

There is, I think, a very set and specific number of ingredients from which Austen regularly chose, increasing or decreasing the specific quantity and strength as necessary. Much as you may enjoy hours of delight from the nearly the same exact set up in any Wodehouse Jeeves & Wooster novel, Austen’s novels taken together are rather like a symphonic variation on a theme.

What makes up one of the greater pleasures of an Austen novel are the shifting social masks, not merely that of the villains of the books — low characters who act without honor and from selfish motivation, selfishness perhaps the worst — but of the protagonists who must sit through endless meals, dances, and other social engagements all the while stifling their longings, obscuring their desires, and bowing to social conventions that require pleasantry in place of honesty. In Anne sitting at a party where all concerned believe she will soon become engaged to the sneaky and self-interested Mr Eliot while her heart belongs to Captain Wentworth, we can likewise see Elinor Dashwood suffering love for Edward Ferrars while feeling she can never speak it due to his familial obligations.

There is, I think, a kind of delighted sadism implicit in this arrangement. The course of true love never did run smooth could be taken as the unspoken coda to Austen’s novels, and it is that satisfying certainty that true love will win in the end for all the characters we especially like that gives a bearable tang to these mortifying scenes. Could we stand Caroline Bingley for even a minute were it not that we know Elizabeth will succeed where she will not? Of course not, and the same could be said for any of Austen’s other loathsome specimens.

Perhaps it is due to the novel’s shortness, but for Captain Wentworth, however, we never develop the same depth of feeling as we do for Edward in Sense and Sensibility or the well beloved Mr Darcy in Pride and Prejudice. We learn so little of his character; we peruse no letters of his nor visit his family home; he remains more an object about which Anne’s considerations of persuasion circle about, his angst and tormented feelings in spite of himself are never on display for more than a second.

Different from the other novels in one very specific respect, Persuasion keeps almost all of the worst behaviors of its characters behind the curtains. Elizabeth’s plots to marry Captain Wentworth herself come to nothing, but we never see them build. Mr William Elliot likewise schemes in darkness, and Sir Walter, while a pompous ass, hardly schemes at all even if his actions do have serious repercussions. This stage business keeps the novel tight and compact, which concentrates the philosophical portion of the book at the expense of the emotional content. Austen was wise to keep the complications to a minimum, lest she drag out a book more of the head than of the heart.

Thus, there is a feeling I have upon starting a Jane Austen novel which is neither Pride and Prejudice nor Sense and Sensibility that this will be an okay substitute until I reread one of those two peerless novels. It’s a shame to have such a feeling; it does an injustice to her other books which are always a pleasure to read, always a pleasure to revisit. As mentioned earlier, a decade has past since my visiting the world of Persuasion and what was wanted was the liveliness of her best known novels. Instead as time progressed I warmed overwhelmingly to the pleasures of this shorter, though not necessarily simpler book.

Nadia May’s delivery is fun and delightful, managing the task of doing male characterizations that don’t strive to approximate but to give a sense of someone’s primary trait. Sir Walter’s stuffy self-regard has dry huffiness about it, while the soft wisdom of Anne’s outlook gently presents itself without advertisement.

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