onsdag 23 maj 2018

Jane Austen - hard-headed or romantic?

As I anticipated, I really enjoyed rereading Jane Austen's Persuasion. Emma is still my favourite, but I believe Persuasion comes in second for me, trumping Pride and Prejudice. Maybe the first-rate film with Amanda Root's immensely likeable Anne Elliot plays its part - going by the novel versions alone, Lizzy Bennet is more engaging than Anne. But Anne's a sweet heroine all the same, and only one of many genuinely nice characters in the book. Her immediate family may be caricatured, but otherwise both the settings and supporting cast in Persuasion make it pleasant to spend time in the novel's world. The love interest, Wentworth, is perfectly OK - a great deal better than Knightley, at any rate. His sister and brother-in-law, the Crofts, are lovely, and Anne's in-laws the Musgroves - though no intellectuals - are good-humoured and decent. Wentworth's naval friends in Lyme are also a warm-hearted bunch and contribute to making the description of this coastal town so attractive. Though Anne spends so much of the novel suffering from the pains of (as she imagines) lost love, Persuasion is a surprisingly cosy read.

The available film and TV adaptations do a good job of capturing what goes on in the book, but there are one or two surprises. For one, I was impressed with those who have done the adapting, for there is less direct dialogue in the novel than one might expect, especially in the early parts. We get a clearer view of what's actually going on in Anne's mind than can be conveyed on the big or small screen, even by the best actress - there's quite a lot of introspection. I was also surprised by the fair portrait of Lady Russell, who is the one responsible for breaking up Anne's and Wentworth's first engagement. Anne's snobbish father and sister may not have be thrilled by the idea of her marrying a penniless naval officer with an uncertain future and no "breeding", but they never care enough about Anne to put up any strong opposition to the match: it is Lady Russell who does the persuading of the title. As a result, Anne's and Wentworth's happiness is delayed for more than eight years until they find their way back to each other. Nevertheless, Lady Russell is far from being an ogre: she is shown to be genuinely devoted to Anne and to have good judgement in other matters. When Anne takes up the acquaintance of an old friend in Bath who has fallen on hard times, Lady Russell warmly supports her. I liked her reaction to hearing from Anne that Wentworth is showing a interest in Louisa Musgrove: "internally her heart revelled in the angry pleasure, in pleased contempt, that the man who at twenty-three had seemed to understand somewhat of the value of an Anne Elliot, should, eight years afterwards, be charmed by a Louisa Musgrove". It shows that Lady Russell is well aware of Anne's worth. It's also very human, as much as to say: "Ha! See? I was right - he is no good".

A funny thing about Jane Austen is that there actually is quite a lot of romance in her novels. Many readers first discover them when they are in their teens or twenties and revel in the love stories and happy endings. Later, they will probably be told more than once by people in the know that Austen is a sharp, hard-headed observer of her times, with a keen satirical edge, and that gushing "Janeites" who stress the swoony costume-drama aspects of her plots do her no favours. That may be true enough as far as it goes, but there are quite a number of instances where Austen seems to advocate the romantic rather than the sensible option. In Persuasion she sees nothing odd in Anne holding a torch for an old love for eight long years. True, we know that her love was reciprocated, so it's not a question of entirely one-sided pining. Nevertheless, an unromantic observer would probably have thought that the best thing for Anne would be to snap out of it. Austen also shows sympathy for Anne's mindset, and that of Fanny Price in Mansfield Park, when they reject highly eligible suitors because they can't imagine being with anyone except the man they truly love, even if it seems doubtful (especially in Fanny's case) that he feels the same way. Austen does poke some fun at Anne's thoughts along these lines - "Prettier musings of high-wrought love and eternal constancy, could never have passed along the streets of Bath" - but she still finds this view of love and marriage natural, even if a comfortable existence as a single woman was a rare thing in her day. Marrying was how you secured your livelihood, and waiting for "the one" a luxury most women could ill afford.

Jane Austen is a sharp observer, and the quality of her writing alone explains why her novels have survived when those of many of her contemporaries have not. Nevertheless, one reason she goes down so well with modern readers must surely be that she, in her own wry way, is all in favour of following one's heart.