I was speaking to someone last week and I happened to comment, as an aside, as a joke, that I am a sensitive man, a thoroughly modern man. My comment, however, much to my surprise, was met with uproarious laughter and the exclamation: You’re not sensitive! You have no feelings! Shit, well, that told me. But – aha – I have just finished Persuasion, I literally closed the book mere moments ago, and I would like to point out that I did so with something of a sigh, a kind of furrow-browed, melancholic air [despite the so-called happy ending], which is the kind of response my friend would deem me incapable of. So, to this friend, I say: read on, Macduff, because there is more where that came from.
The cover of the Everyman edition of this novel is of a painting called, appropriately enough, Woman at Window; it shows, as the title suggests, a woman standing by a window looking out onto, well, nothing, nothing but a wash of autumnal colour. The publishers couldn’t really have chosen a more fitting image.
Anne Elliot, the principle character, is a deeply contemplative woman, who is, for the greater part of the book [and her life], essentially alone in the world. She has no suitor worthy of the name, and although she does have a family they do not appreciate her. In addition to this lack of esteem from others, she has, according to the narrator, neither her looks [her bloom forsook her some time ago, apparently] to fall back on, nor a high position in society [the family is having to retrench due to financial difficulties]. In Austen’s world this is pretty much as dark as things get; a lonely women looking out of a window at the world and feeling, well, quietly wounded in her soul.
You must, I’m sure, at some point in your life, have gone out walking in September, gone crunching through the fallen leaves; and maybe you felt somewhat wistful? Maybe the day was coming to a close, the sun setting, the air turning cool, and for a moment you were struck with a feeling of, I dunno, insignificance. I have been in that situation many times, and the same desperately dull ache I experienced on those occasions accompanied me through the 250 pages of this book.
In terms of plot the set-up is pretty straightforward, it resembles, in fact, those most straightforward of stories: fairytales. We have a kind-hearted woman, who is ill-used by her odious family [the head of which favours the boorish sister]; this young woman was once in love but was persuaded to give up this love by her family [and her closest friend] as they deemed it an unsuitable match. The prince charming doth return, however, albeit after a number of years, and all is well in the end. Kinda. What most interested me though was how the book managed to be so monumentally boring and yet so heartbreaking at the same time.
Y’know how people often complainingly label certain kinds of books or films pointless, and put forth, as justification, the opinion that in these films or books nothing happens? Well, stuff does happen in Persuasion, but none of it is particularly exciting. It is a book that is subtle to the point of being comatose, at times. And I have to admit that there were points when I had to break out the smelling salts and really push myself on. Jane’s prose helped, of course, as it is immaculate as always; but it was certain scenes, and the promise of others like them, that really pulled me through. My favourite is when Anne, Wentworth [prince charming], Louisa [some dame who has her eye on Wentworth] and others, go for a walk in the woods. Louisa and Wentworth break off and there is a lovely passage where Anne overhears their conversation – through the leaves, so to speak – as they return to the fold. Her quiet grief, her resignation, is deeply touching. And this scene so perfectly summed up her character, and the novel as a whole. Anne, on the outside, at a distance, but close enough to listen, or watch, as others take part in life.
If Persuasion were a sound it would be a whisper, if it were an action it would be a sideways glance. While it wasn’t always riveting on a page-by-page basis, I feel enriched by the experience of having read it. You getting this, my so-called friend? Feelings. By the truckload. Now, where’s that crying robot picture?
Meh, close enough.