In defense of Persuasion

Cross-posted to AustenBlog

So I guess it’s kind of obvious that I’m burned out on Austen blogging, but that doesn’t mean I’m not paying attention to what’s going on in Janeworld. I suppose I’ve just been waiting for something to bring me out of my funk. So I guess I should thank Adelle Waldman for her article in Slate, as it aroused my ire sufficiently to get me blogging again; but really it just made me cranky, and made me get the Cluebat of Janeite Righteousness out of hibernation.

Why do so many of Jane Austen’s smartest readers consider her weakest novel to be her best? Persuasion, the story of kind, helpful Anne Elliot—who made a mistake years ago and is still suffering for it when the book opens—is didactic and full of crude, overdrawn characterizations.


*hefts Cluebat*

Okay, this is the opening paragraph. I’ll give her some slack.

*caresses Cluebat lovingly*

It is also the least funny of Austen’s books.

Oh, really? But wait, she’s read it several times. No one else has, of course. No one could possibly pull several funny quotes out of her butt. Could they? 

Vanity was the beginning and the end of Sir Walter Elliot’s character; vanity of person and of situation. He had been remarkably handsome in his youth; and, at fifty-four, was still a very fine man. Few women could think more of their personal appearance than he did, nor could the valet of any new made lord be more delighted with the place he held in society. He considered the blessing of beauty as inferior only to the blessing of a baronetcy; and the Sir Walter Elliot, who united these gifts, was the constant object of his warmest respect and devotion.

This is the sixth paragraph of the book. The sixth paragraph. A withering characterization that neatly disposes of Sir Walter Elliot. The last clause in particular is brilliant and funny. But wait! There’s more!

Sir Walter, without hesitation, declared the Admiral to be the best-looking sailor he had ever met with, and went so far as to say, that if his own man might have had the arranging of his hair, he should not be ashamed of being seen with him any where; and the Admiral, with sympathetic cordiality, observed to his wife as they drove back through the park, “I thought we should soon come to a deal, my dear, in spite of what they told us at Taunton. The Baronet will never set the Thames on fire, but there seems to be no harm in him.” reciprocal compliments, which would have been esteemed about equal.

This one is a particular favorite, especially as it breaks up the tension of one of the very few moments of melodrama in Jane Austen’s novels:

By this time the report of the accident had spread among the workmen and boatmen about the Cobb, and many were collected near them, to be useful if wanted, at any rate, to enjoy the sight of a dead young lady, nay, two dead young ladies, for it proved twice as fine as the first report.

There is more humor, but that will do for now. While Persuasion is hardly a laff-riot, it certainly has humor. Even if one wanted to claim it is the least funny of Austen’s novels–surely a subjective judgment in any event, though Ms. Waldman seems to assert it as a fact–it is not unfunny. I realize that Ms. Waldman does not say it is unfunny, but I think a reader can be forgiven for reading her assertion that it is the “least funny” and inferring that it is unfunny; and that would be a shame. On to the rest of the article.

The book’s good characters are even worse: boring, smug and, after a while, downright insufferable.

One hopes she is not referring to Anne Elliot. While she is without doubt one of Austen’s good heroines, Anne has many moments that make her human and sympathetic. She has a gentle sense of humor that is easily and often aroused, whether by the Crofts’ method of gig-driving, Louisa Musgrove’s paeans to the Navy, or even by herself, when she switches seats at the concert to get closer to Captain Wentworth, and cannot help laughing about it.

I’m not inclined to specifically spork-fisk this entire article, partly because some of it is quite good; just not the parts about Persuasion. While the authoress is certainly entitled to not like the novel, she seems to extrapolate this dislike to fact.

And yet many people whose taste is generally excellent—including, for instance, Slate’s own Ron Rosenbaum and the literary critics William Deresiewicz and Harold Bloom—consider Persuasion Austen’s best book.

There was nothing in the linked article by the Slate writer that said he considers Persuasion to be Austen’s best book; just his favorite. They are not the same thing. Maybe he does think it the best, but I can’t tell from that piece. I don’t really know enough about the other authors’ writing to know what they say about the novels; but I wonder if Ms. Waldman has mistaken the authors’ favorite novels for the novel they consider the best?

Persuasion is my favorite Austen novel, and I will defend it as such. I think (in other words, it’s my opinion) that Emma is her best novel; but Persuasion remains my favorite. I can make that separation. I think Emma is brilliant and funny, and I am entirely sympathetic to anyone who considers it her favorite Austen, but I will never write about Emma with the passion about which I write about Persuasion, because I simply don’t love it as much.

I have written many times that I was a late-blooming Janeite, not reading her books until I was in my 20s. I read Emma, and liked it very much indeed; a year or so later, I read Pride and Prejudice, and was excessively diverted; and then I read Persuasion. I very clearly remember the experience of reading it. As I read, I was not convinced that (do I need spoiler alerts here?) Anne and Wentworth would end up together. It seemed to me that things were heading toward Wentworth marrying Louisa Musgrove–regretfully–and Anne consoling herself with Captain Benwick.

I did not yet know Austen well enough to know she knew better. I did not know she was going to lay the whammy on me. And boy, did she. I read of Wentworth showing up in Bath, and his jealousy of Mr. Elliot, with growing hope–not unlike Anne’s; I read her passionate defense of woman’s love, and Wentworth’s discomfort with overhearing it–but I still wasn’t sure that it was going to happen.

And then Jane laid the whammy on me, big-time. I got to The Letter. It’s worth reproducing in whole here.

“I can listen no longer in silence. I must speak to you by such means as are within my reach. You pierce my soul. I am half agony, half hope. Tell me not that I am too late, that such precious feelings are gone for ever. I offer myself to you again with a heart even more your own than when you almost broke it, eight years and a half ago. Dare not say that man forgets sooner than woman, that his love has an earlier death. I have loved none but you. Unjust I may have been, weak and resentful I have been, but never inconstant. You alone have brought me to Bath. For you alone, I think and plan. Have you not seen this? Can you fail to have understood my wishes? I had not waited even these ten days, could I have read your feelings, as I think you must have penetrated mine. I can hardly write. I am every instant hearing something which overpowers me. You sink your voice, but I can distinguish the tones of that voice when they would be lost on others. Too good, too excellent creature! You do us justice, indeed. You do believe that there is true attachment and constancy among men. Believe it to be most fervent, most undeviating, in

F. W.

“I must go, uncertain of my fate; but I shall return hither, or follow your party, as soon as possible. A word, a look, will be enough to decide whether I enter your father’s house this evening or never.”

Such a letter was not to be soon recovered from.

No, it wasn’t. My heart was pounding. I had goosebumps. I was in tears. I was pretty sure this was the greatest piece of writing I had ever read. It was everything. In the context of this story–this story that had caught me and absorbed me–it was everything.

Before reading The Letter (because we Janeites need call it nothing more specific; it is The Letter), I had been a casual Jane Austen reader, who enjoyed her books; but after reading it, I was a fan for life. In my view, that kind of passion is what reading is all about. Clinical discussions and “rankings” of the novels are all very well, and recognizing technical greatness is an interesting intellectual exercise, but give me the big whammy. Nobody does it better than Jane.

*puts down Cluebat* It really wasn’t needed here.

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