Friday, October 23, 2020

Review: Persuasion by Jane Austen

 Rating: 4/5 stars

 Although I read and loved Pride and Prejudice in high school, I hadn't read Persuasion until now, and it is an interesting book to read at the age of thirty. Where Pride and Prejudice revolves around younger people blundering their way through new relationships, the cast of Persuasion are a little more experienced. Anne Ellis, having declined a proposal due to being too young, is still single some 8 or 9 years later. Other characters are widowed, looking for the second love of their life. Some have been married for a long time - a few very happily, the rest rather miserably. Through these characters, Austen explores how people change during their twenties. What acts can be forgiven? Can old relationships be rekindled? If I've presented Persuasion as being dry and academic, that is on me entirely - the characters are colorful and the prose is dripping with snark.

Somehow, Jane Austen's work became associated with romance for women, when her writing is closer to that of Dan Carlin than of Nora Roberts. I suppose it's because her incisive, acerbic commentary is centered around interpersonal relationships and the day-to-day concerns of the over-privileged and under-employed, rather than more "serious" topics like politics, war, or media. But in Persuasion, although there is the usual "will-they-won't-they" plot, Austen comments quite extensively on political matters.

One of the key themes is the decline of the aristocracy class, or the rise of the "self-made" men wealthy men. The skincare-obsessed and spendthrift Sir Walter perhaps personifies this critique of the useless navel-gazing of the gentry most starkly. He is foiled against Admiral Croft, who earned his wealth (albeit, as an instrument of brutal imperialism...) and is an upstanding gentleman with an enviably adorable relationship, and who finally did something about the draft in Sir Walter's estate's cupboards. "Productive" members of the gentry fare a little better than their more idle counterparts; Mrs Smith atones for her profligate past by industriously selling items she knits. One imagines that Austen sees herself in this class of privileged but productive aristocrats.

Feminism, or rather, questioning the existence of native differences between men and women, was thoughtfully presented. Mary Ellis decries that no one would judge a father for going to a dinner party while his child is sick, but that a mother is expected to stay home due to some presumed inborn ability to care for children that Mary doesn't recognize in herself. The resolution of the love story is spurred by Anne discussing with Captain Harville whether men and women are equally 'constant' in their love. If men and women love differently, is it due to social expectations, or due to biology, or due to (aristocratic) women having little other occupation? Austen also slyly suggests that the nature of women cannot be understood at all from books, because overwhelmingly books are written by men. I see you, Jane, and I appreciate you.

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