“You alone have brought me to Bath. For you alone, I think and plan.”
(A letter from Captain Wentworth to Anne Elliot )
The time between finishing a book and writing about it should be as short as possible, as in I prefer when it happens immediately. My memory is strong and my feelings are fresh, the perfect foundation for reflection. Alas, I let this one linger, so I am afraid that whatever I write will be a dimmed version of my true love and enthusiasm for the book. Persuasion is thus far and by far my favorite of Jane Austen. It is a love story not of excessive romance, but of two people growing older, wiser, and finding their way back together. The pages overflow with characters, but unlike Sense and Sensibility, which required scribbling family trees in the margins, I found it easy to keep track of Persuasion’s names and relations. Every character is unique and well-developed, even the minor ones are memorable, and almost every one of them has some kind of influence on the relationship between Anne Elliot and Captain Wentworth.
During a group outing in which the friends disperse among various activities, Anne becomes flustered by a conversation she overhears between Wentworth and Henrietta. Anne is relieved when everyone in the party gathers back together, as she is able to collect herself amidst the noise of the crowd: “Her spirits wanted the solitude and silence which only numbers could give.” I immediately thought of the same idea famously expressed in The Great Gatsby: “I like large parties. They’re so intimate. At small parties there isn’t any privacy.”
My only wish is that I could have been privy to the details of Anne and Wentworth’s relationship. We are to assume that they are soul mates, that this is a meeting of the minds, yet because they are estranged for most of the story, we do not get to witness the connection ourselves. I suppose this is only a credit to Austen’s talent of creating characters whom we would love to observe, or to overhear in long conversation. I’m bound to come back to Austen, and the call will surely be Emma, but for now I leave her, and I think I miss her already.
Penguin Classics sent along Love and Friendship and Other Youthful Writings, a collection of Jane Austen’s juvenilia that I previously did not know existed. Juvenilia is the work produced by an artist during his or her youth. Jane was a prolific young writer, proving to be one of those lucky people who discovers their passion early in life. Jane’s father is said to have given her the notebooks in which she wrote these stories, and inside the front cover of one of those notebooks, her father inscribed:
“Effusions of Fancy by a very Young Lady Consisting of Tales in a Style entirely new.”
I told myself I would move on from Austen after Persuasion, but I’m far too curious about such early work, so I’ve decided to scatter these stories over the next few months, reading a couple here and there. Some of them are a mere two pages, so it is the ideal way to keep a little Austen in my life. So far I’ve read three stories: “Sir William Mountague,” “Memoirs of Mr Clifford,” and “The beautifull Cassandra.” The stories are incredibly unique, full of imagination, and hilarious. Sir William Mountague falls in love with every woman he sees, and in “Memoirs of Mr Clifford,” Jane makes fun of the self-indulgent genre by running through the mundane details of a man and his travels from Bath to London. “The beautifull Cassandra” is a charming account of “a day well spent” and is dedicated to Jane’s beloved sister, her closest companion. The dedication I copy here in full because it is just beautiful:
“You are a Phoenix. Your taste is refined, your Sentiments are noble, and your Virtues innumerable. Your Person is lovely, your Figure, elegant, and your Form, majestic. Your Manners are polished, your Conversation is rational and your appearance singular. If therefore the following Tale will afford one moment’s amusement to you, every wish will be gratified for.”
The book’s hardcover is wrapped in linen and there is a ribbon marker, both features gone from contemporary bookshelves. Handling the book – holding its weight, feeling its texture, and marking a page with a ribbon – reminds me of how physical and active the reading experience can be. How we read has dramatically changed, and will continue to do so, making this volume of Jane Austen’s early work nostalgic in more ways than one.
“Though nothing could be more polite than Lady Middleton’s behavior to Elinor and Marianne, she did not really like them at all. Because they neither flattered herself nor her children, she could not believe them good-natured; and because they were fond of reading, she fancied them satirical: perhaps without knowing what it was to be satirical; but that did not signify. It was censure in common use, and easily given.”
Sense and Sensibility, p. 67
By Jane Austen
Persuasion is the last of Jane Austen’s books that I plan to read before taking a breather, and fittingly so, as it is her last completed novel. The timing is especially perfect because having just finished her first novel, Northanger Abbey, I am very curious to compare the bookends of her life’s work.
Anne Elliot is 27-years-old, noticeably older than Austen’s previous heroines. She is the middle child of widower Sir Walter Elliot, a vain man who describes her as “haggard.” This is not the story of a giddy young girl flirting her days away, but of a sweet and elegant woman whose life demands heartache and patience. At 19, Anne falls in love with Frederick Wentworth, but rejects his marriage proposal due to her family’s insistence that he is beneath her. Frederick goes off to sea, Anne remains unmarried, and the main drama unfolds when he returns, now a captain in the Royal Navy and an embodiment of the self-made man, another new type of character for Austen.
There is something striking about Persuasion being Austen’s final novel before her death at 41, as if it is some kind of culmination of all that she has written, of all that she has experienced. Persuasion is Austen’s all too soon farewell, written even in the face of illness, and I am eager to pay my respects.
I was warned by a reader that the book slows down once Catherine arrives at Northanger Abbey, and she was right. While Catherine is in Bath, we get to experience its buzzing social scene starring the entire cast of characters. Three sets of siblings – Catherine and James Morland, Isabella and John Thorpe, and Eleanor and Henry Tilney – find themselves in a web of friendship, flirtation, and ultimately betrayal. It’s actually surprising just how awful a few of these characters turn out to be, namely Isabella. She is so outlandishly self-serving and fake, that she is tolerable only because she provides friendship (admittedly short-lived) to a character we do like, Catherine, and because a villain’s antics are generally entertaining.
Northanger Abbey is not a sweeping or particularly striking story. But it is Jane Austen’s first finished novel and contains bits and pieces that I love. Upon arriving at Northanger Abbey, Catherine sees and hears everything through the lens of a Gothic novel, going as far as to suspect Henry’s father, General Tilney, of murdering or locking up his late wife. No matter how many times her wild imagination is proven wrong, she is relentless, until Henry offers a strongly-worded reprimand and presents what is a clear and beautiful testament of the rational mind: “Consult your own understanding, your own sense of the probable, your own observation of what is passing around you” (p. 165).
There is also a letter that James writes to Catherine, expressing the end of his engagement with Isabella, who has heartlessly left him in hopes of attaching herself to a wealthier man. He painfully writes, “Her duplicity hurts me more than all; till the very last, if I reasoned with her, she declared herself as much attached to me as ever, and laughed at my fears.” The final line reads, “Dearest Catherine, beware how you give your heart” (p. 169). The letter is so heart wrenching that it leads Catherine to cry that she wishes to never to receive a letter again. It is very much worth reading.
Austen ends Northanger Abbey’s primary love story, that of Catherine and Henry Tilney, on a terribly unromantic yet realistic note. After Catherine and Henry assure each other of their love and commitment, Austen admits that Henry’s knowledge of Catherine’s infatuation with him had been originally “the only cause of giving her a serious thought” (p. 206). Indeed, how many relationships are forged simply by the flattery and pleasure one receives from another’s obvious affection? Jane Austen gets it.