Written in 1815 and 1816, published after Jane’s death, and perhaps the most poignant novel, is Persuasion. It is Jane Austen’s last completed novel. After eight and half years our hero and heroine are reunited. I saw the 1995 film before I had read the novel. And then later reading the book, I was transfixed as I had discovered another Austen.
Very-Very-Important-and-Vain-Sir Walter Elliot
Born-to- Rule-Elizabeth Elliot
Comfortable-Married-Couple-Mr and Mrs Musgrove
Romantic-and-Adventurous-Admiral and Mrs Crofts
‘Too piano’-Captain Benwick
Harassed- Husband-Charles Musgrove
The young Man-of-Merit-Captain Wentworth is rejected by the young Virtuous-but-Undervalued-Anne Elliot upon persuasion by an older and seemingly wiser friend, Persuasive-Lady Russell. Resentful and bitter, he thinks he is over the love he felt so strongly. Having made his fortune through luck and merit, Captain Wentworth meets Anne again. He has no intention of renewing his suit until disaster strikes and in the jaws of tragedy he appreciates the cautious nature of Anne. He realises that what he perceived to be a fault was equally a virtue. It is in Virtuous but Undervalued Anne’s handling of this tragedy that he sees her true worth and also sees his own obstinacy in not trying to renew his suit earlier. All was almost lost, but in the Austen universe, this is not the way. At the end of the novel we see the almost too perfect Virtuous-but-Undervalued Anne hooked up with Man-of-Merit-Captain Wentworth and it as if a new style of couple is born; one based on equality and decency rather than position and monetary advantage.
Captain Wentworth is a new type of man for the Eighteenth Century. He has made his mark by his own merits not on the old fashioned system of influence and family position. In today’s world he is the self made man without a background steeped in the old school tie. He is indeed the most meritorious of all the Austen heroes. As we see Man-of-Merit-Captain Wentworth getting mud on his boots and coat in the 1995 BBC adaptation of Persuasion we see a strength and resilience that is indeed very becoming. But even he has his faults. He could have won his love far earlier if he had swallowed his pride and the hurt of her rejection and tried again after he had made a name for himself in his naval career.
The Bit Players:
And of course, as with all of the Austen Six, there is an odd mixture of minor characters. There is Very Very Important and Vain Sir Walter Elliot, the Baronet who must be the shallowest character ever invented in literature. His favourite book is The Barontage, a who’s who of the age, and his entry opens automatically as it has been peered at so much. Mr Very-Very-Important-and-Vain-Sir Walter Elliot stands by ceremony and insists that he is given his due. Not surprisingly, two of his daughters share his love of position. Very shallow, Born-to-Rule-Elizabeth Elliot, is slightly more superficial. And the second sister, Discontented-Wife-Mary Musgrove wants to upstage her mother in law and sisters in law at every opportunity. She sometimes makes Harassed-Husband-Charles Musgrove look like a saint for putting up with her. Both Born-to- Rule-Elizabeth Elliot and Discontented-Wife-Mary Musgrove are forever worried that their due is not always observed amongst the lower orders. One very satisfying aspect of their lives is that they are indeed not happy. Position and influence hasn’t brought them what good friends and positive relationships with your family can, and does for some of the other characters in the book.
On the more positive side is one of my all time favourite characters, Resilient-Mrs Smith. Once quite high, Mrs Smith has been brought low but is always able to find something to laugh at. Often it is at others’ pomposity. She shows so aptly that although money and position helps, it isn’t necessary to be rich to find happiness. Other positive characters are the Comfortable-Married-Couple-Mr and Mrs Musgrove. They seem to care about their children’s wellbeing rather than position and influence. They enjoy their grandchildren, take comfort from their children and enjoy a good dinner. They are as far from the power couple of today that you can get. Romantic-and-Adventurous-Admiral and Mrs Croft are similar although much more romantic and adventurous. They are a couple that share their lives; their values are based on equality. Admiral and Mrs Crofts, like the Contented Couple the Mr and Mrs Musgroves, have found happiness in their friends, family, work and lifestyle.
Sinister, scheming and Poisonly-Perfect-Mr Elliot, who stands to inherit all the Elliot wealth, is another wonderful minor character. He is another Prince Charming who is found out to be anything but. He sets out to seduce Virtuous Anne; he is rational, he flatters, he is gracious. Resilient-Mrs Smith, has in the inside story on Poisonly-Perfect-Mr Elliot and the timely declaration of love from Man-of-Merit-Captain Wentworth saves Anne. There is also “Too Piano-Captain Benwick, obsessed with his dead love and his poetry until through the same poetry he falls in love with one of the good natured Miss Musgroves. The best description of him comes from the Admiral who calls him “too piano”. He is our metro-sexual; he loves poetry but is also a man of action.
Henry James once wrote that novel writing is the depiction of the perfect world. Although not true of the world of today’s novels, this is certainly true of Austen’s world; the world that should be, rather than the world that is. The Austen Six have the happy endings where the virtuous are rewarded and the villains lose, although not too much. Even Prince-Charming-Willoughby will still enjoy his riding and hunting but will forever think of Spontaneous-and-Sentimental-Marianne with regret. And this is where Austen’s philosophy is seen. She sets up the philosophical values that we can use as a guide. In following her lead we can find our own path to happiness. Alas the Austen way might not bring about such perfect endings as in the Austen Six but they certainly illustrate a way of living that is as rational and sound as any philosopher’s. And they just may lead to happiness.