I believe good fiction can provide insights about reality, so I like to read and review novels when I have time.
Jane Austen's Last Book
In her last book, published posthumously in 1918, Jane Austen introduces us to a heroine different from those of her previous works. Animation, youth, and cheerfulness are not her main qualities. Those who thought that Austen did not write about women past the age of five and twenty will be surprised to find a protagonist who has lived a little more than that and who is still unmarried.
Anne, our heroine, is the daughter of Sir Walter Elliot of Kellynch Hall. His rank and—in his own opinion—his attractiveness make him a very distinguished person, but they also render him as vain and superficial as a man can be. His wife, Mrs. Elliot, a good and sensitive woman, died when Anne was still a young girl and left her and her two sisters under the care of her dearest friend, Mrs. Rusell.
Anne inherited her mother's good sense and sweetness, but these qualities represent nothing to her conceited father or to her older sister Elizabeth, who shares with Sir Walter the haughtiness and pride in her social position. Anne's feelings, opinions, and advice are always unappreciated and ignored by her family. With Mrs. Russell, on the other hand, Anne is the favorite, for she is the only one of the sisters who resembles her dead friend.
As luxurious as the Elliots' lives appear, their financial situation is not admirable. Sir Walter has acquired numerous debts while trying to maintain their lifestyle, and they have reached a point where he cannot ignore them anymore.
With Mrs. Russell's intervention, the family decides to temporarily move to Bath and rent a smaller house with lower expenses, and in the meantime, leave Kellynch Hall to a tenant. This solution allows them to save money, pay their debts, and keep living—in Sir Walter and Elizabeth's view—honorably according to their social condition.
Anne is required to leave her home for a town she dislikes, and the new tenants give her something to think about: They are closely related to the man whose heart she broke. Eight years prior, young Frederick Wentworth was poor and had no relations, but was sure of making fortune by his work. He and Anne were in love.
Sir Walter did not consider him to be a match for an Elliot, so he made clear to his daughter that, were she to marry this man, he would do nothing for them. It would not have prevented the marriage if Mrs. Russel had not interceded to make sure of it. She mistrusted Wenthworth's audacity and did not like the idea of her Anne being engaged to such a man.
The young girl trusted in the advice of the lady, who she knew loved her like a mother, and with a heart full of sorrow, she broke the engagement. This episode marked her youth and conditioned her possibility of finding another man to love. In her heart, there was only space for him.
But her present situation leads her, as she supposes and dreads, to meet him again. Captain Wentworth is now a rich and respected man, but he is still resentful for the pain she inflicted upon him.
Our protagonist is forced to face all that could have been and to conceal her feelings from the ones around her. Only time will tell if she is worthy of obtaining forgiveness for her past mistakes and a new chance for love.
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 forever.
— Jane Austen
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Why Should You Be Reading It?
Being the last book that the author finished before her death, it is said to be her most mature work, and it may well be. In this opportunity, Austen chooses, as I have already mentioned, an older woman as the center of the plot. That fact gives this particular book a different starting point: This is not the story of a young girl whose life revolves (willing or unwillingly) around marriage but rather that of a grown-up woman who believes that she lost her one chance at love in a way she will always regret.
It is interesting to see the difference between Anne Elliot and younger Austen protagonists such as Lizzy Bennet and Marianne Dashwood. We can appreciate Anne's much more correct and measured judgment of people—something that only time and experience can give. It also makes me think about the advantages that being allowed to choose the person that is to be your life partner at an older age has. It is strange to think that in Austen's time, I would be on the verge of being an old maid. I still feel like a child!
Let's discuss some of the themes that the author addresses in her story.
In the first place, she reflects on the consequences that being persuaded by a bad piece of advice can bring. This is a topic that runs throughout the novel as we see the main character wonder what would have happened if only she had dared to make a different choice.
I think the author expresses her conviction that in important matters, your intuition and firmness of character are better ways to deal with a tough decision than through the advice of anybody else. But it also makes a distinction between firmness of character and obstinacy, pointing out that they should not be taken as synonyms. We can see that plainly in Louisa Musgrove's accident.
As for the love story that we get to see from Anne's point of view, we can sympathize with our poor heroine: She is forced to frequent the same society as the love of her life and feel all his resentment toward her. Not only that—she is also cruelly aware that he is dispensing his attention to another woman, and she has to watch them as they begin to fall in love right in front of her eyes. She must suffer in silence, unable to confess her sorrow to anybody.
But of course, Jane Austen is Jane Austen, and some things cannot be missing in any book written by her. The criticism of society is very present. The author constantly questions the importance that Anne's closest relatives place upon fortune and rank and does not deprive herself of pointing out the absurdity of it every chance she has. Anne's disapproval of their relationship with the "Laura Place cousins" and her reaction to the news of her father's debts are eloquent enough.
That is not good company; that is the best. Good company requires only birth, education, and manners, and with regard to education is not very nice. Birth and good manners are essential; but a little learning is by no means a dangerous thing in good company; on the contrary, it will do very well.
— Jane Austen
The Hearts of Men
Austen also emphasizes in Persuasion more than in any other of her books her thoughts about women's good qualities and capacities. I believe it is something that can be noticed in her other works, in which she gave life to women that were ahead of their time, but never has she addressed the matter in such a direct way.
In one of the last chapters, Anne has a conversation with captain Harville about this, both trying to decide which of the sexes is more constant when it comes to love. Harville claims that if he knew more about literature and poetry, he could present plenty of examples to prove the inconstancy of women's hearts, as it has been extensively documented by those means.
Anne rightly reminds him who wrote most of the material he is trying to use to support his arguments, but also makes recognition of men's capacities as husbands and fathers.
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 higher a degree; the pen has been in their hands. I will not allow books to prove anything."
— Jane Austen
As always, the characterizations are impeccable. Austen is a master when it comes to putting ridiculous and foolish persons into her narrative, balancing the sensible ones, and creating the atmosphere of comedy and irony that her readers love and expect when they open one of her books.
What else can I say? You can be sure that any story written by Jane Austen is a story worth reading and one I would highly recommend.
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