Monday, December 7, 2015

Lessons from Persuasion

Young and gentle as she was, it might yet have been possible to withstand her father's ill-will, though unsoftened by one kind word or look on the part of her sister;--but Lady Russell, whom she had always loved and relied on, could not, with such steadiness of opinion, and such tenderness of manner, be continually advising her in vain.  She was persuaded to believe the engagement a wrong thing--indiscreet, improper, hardly capable of success, and not deserving it.

When is it right to be persuaded?

Jane Austen wrote Persuasion when she was in her twilight years of life.  It was her final complete novel before she passed away at the age of 41.  Austen was ill during the time of writing and did not have the opportunity to do a final edit, which prompts some critics to say that the work isn't as polished as her other novels.

I'm far from an Austen scholar, but I would beg to differ.  I think Persuasion is as impressive as Mansfield Park or Pride and Prejudice.

It has a distinct tone, however, from Austen's earlier writing.  Persuasion is set mostly in the dreariness of autumn and bareness of winter.  The protagonist, Anne Elliot, is not a budding young lady, but a twenty-seven year old woman whose chances for marriage are bleak.  Her opportune time is just about past.

In her biography of Austen, Claire Tomalin asserts that Austen's final novel was a present to herself and to other women, like her sister Cassandra, "who had lost their chance in life and would never enjoy a second spring."  Austen, one might note, never married.

Anne Elliot's second spring was tenuous.  She had once known love.  When she was nineteen, Anne met Captain Frederick Wentworth.  Similar in temperament and interests, they were quickly enraptured by each other and Wentworth proposed marriage.

The circumstances of such a marriage, however, were dubious.

Wentworth was fully confident that his hardwork and good luck would soon equate to a favorable position in society and strong financial status.  However, at the time of his engagement to Anne, he definitively lacked both assets--he had no strong connections and was employed in a tenuous profession.  As a naval officer, Wentworth's chances at success depended on numerous, uncertain factors, such as safety at sea and engagement in battle.

Where Anne sought encouragement for her marriage, she found only discouragement.  Her vain father disparaged Wentworth for his more lowly birthright.  Anne's mother had died years before and, in her place, Anne turned to her friend and advisor, Lady Russell, who adamantly opposed the union.  Anne was thus persuaded: she turned away the man she loved.

Eight years did nothing to lessen Anne's feelings for Wentworth.   When her father must rent his great estate, Kellynch Hall, because of financial strain, circumstances work to bring Anne and Wentworth back into the same social circle once again.  

It is far from a joyous reunion, however.  Wentworth resents the fact that Anne was weak in her conviction and allowed her feelings for him to be overridden by the influence of others.  He perceived her as feeble and timid.  After great success at sea--achieving all that he had promised her he would, eventually, achieve--Wentworth has returned home to find a wife.  And she may be anyone, save Anne Elliot.

...there could have been no two hearts so open, no tastes so similar, no feelings so in unison, no countenances so beloved.  Now they were as strangers; nay, worse than strangers, for they could never become acquainted.  It was a perpetual estrangement. 

Anne is still fully in love with Wentworth and must watch as he acquaints himself with the other available ladies in the room.  She plays the piano, suffering silently, as Wentworth dances with a possible bride-to-be.  Anne's situation is sympathetic, no doubt.  It is even more sorrowful because Anne does nothing to advance her cause.  

There are no grand lamentations before Wentworth, begging his forgiveness.  She doesn't throw herself at his feet, explaining herself or defending her actions.  In short, she doesn't try to persuade him.

When Anne and Wentworth communicate, it only happens because circumstances work out in their favor.  Anne is walking down the street and Wentworth passes her way.  While attending a play, Anne is sitting at the end of the aisle and is thus free to speak with Wentworth as he stands near.  Wentworth happens to be present in the room when Anne is engaged in a conversation about the differences between how men and women love, providing Anne with the opportunity to emotionally assert, "All the privilege I claim for my own sex (it is not a very enviable one, you need not covet it) is that of loving longest, when existence or when hope is gone."

I remember, when I was of the dating age, constantly trying to maneuver and manipulate events to my favor.  If the boy I was interested in was attending a certain class, I would just "happen" to pass by the room at the exact time said class was dismissed.  No coincidence, just conniving on my part!  And interestingly, those relationships never really worked out.  But, when I finally lifted up my hands and said, "That's it!  I'm done!" I received an email from Chris.  

Anne did not advocate her cause.  But Someone else did.  

I still question whether Anne was right to be persuaded into not marrying Wentworth when he wasn't yet established financially and socially.  Anne later explains to Wentworth that, had she gone against her family and Lady Russell, she would have been troubled in conscience.  However, I consider eight years of lost time.  Was it justified?  Anne knew he was her vocation; did her conscience need to be bothered?  Perhaps she should have taken a leap of faith and trusted God to provide.

I conclude with my favorite passage from the book, which is a letter Wentworth secretly gives to Anne after he overhears her claim that women love the longest.  Austen never provides the dialogue between Wentworth and Anne when they finally reconcile.  However, she provides this letter, with words so loving and passionate that it more than suffices ...  Now this is romance!

"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."

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