What I love most about Jane Austen is her subtle sarcasm. Blink and you might miss it; fail to read carefully and you might not understand what all the fuss is about. I’ve read two Austens in the past (Pride & Prejudice and Sense & Sensibility; Emma was a failure that I’ll have to try again at some point) and it’s about time that I got started on the remainders. It takes me a little bit of effort to switch into Austen-mode – her language is so unlike the contemporary fiction I typically read – but once I’m there, I’m truly there. There are few authors in whose books I feel completely submerged. Reading Jane Austen is like being ensconced in velvet.
The title of Jane Austen’s Persuasion (1818) comes from protagonist Anne Elliot’s rejection of Captain Frederick Wentworth’s engagement proposal. Although persuaded by Lady Russell, a close family friend, that he is beneath her station in life, Anne continues eight years without finding another to hold in such high esteem. Her father’s financial situation being unstable, the family moves to Bath and rents their house to Admiral Croft, whose wife is sister to Captain Wentworth. Anne does not join the family in Bath, but is entreated to split her time between Lady Russell and her sister Mary Musgrove and Mary’s family. The Crofts and, subsequently, the Captain make their way to visit the Musgroves and Anne has to face her unchanged feelings for her former match.
What is equally admirable about Austen is her scathing commentaries on social norms. Through Anne’s travels from one house to the next she observes that people are so involved in their own business as to completely discount the events of others. Likewise, the use of marriage to increase one’s station in life is suitably chastised, as evidenced by her friend Mrs. Smith’s revealing of and Anne’s unfavorable reaction to a cousin’s true nature. But nowhere is Austen more pointed in her ruminations of male and female relations as when Captain Harville (friend to Wentworth) and Anne disagree on which of the two sexes suffers more in a lost romantic attachment. Harville sides with the men, of course, using as proof for his argument that “all histories are against you, all stories, prose and verse.” He then acquiesces, “But perhaps you will say, these were all written by men.”
To which Anne replies, “Yes, yes, if you please, no reference to examples in books. Men have had every advantage of us in telling their own story. Education has been theirs in so much a higher degree; the pen has been in their hands.”
I believe this is what the kids these days refer to as a “mic drop.” In this short passage, Austen is not discussing romance, but the representation of women in history and society as a whole. What is said of women cannot be trusted because women’s lives are written and interpreted through the lens of privileged, educated men. Never have I seen such a succinct excoriation of recorded history as that. I nearly stopped to applaud as I read on the train.
Although I am far from a romantic, I can’t deny falling prey to Wentworth’s final admission of continued love for Anne: “You pierce my soul,” he writes feverishly. “I am half-agony, half-hope.” I dare say, those words would work on me. This is not a spoiler, though – Austen’s novels always end this way. But the joy is not in the “will they/won’t they” back and forth of romance. You read Austen not for the acuity of plot, but for the love and care she takes with her words. You read Austen for the beauty of it all.