My personal Desert Island Book for September is Persuasion by Jane Austen, a book I know inside out and upside down as a result of studying it for my A Level English Literature exam.
Eight years ago, Anne Elliot fell in love with poor but ambitious naval officer, Captain Frederick Wentworth, a choice with which Anne’s family was dissatisfied. Lady Russell, friend and mentor to Anne, persuaded the younger woman to break off the match.
Now, on the verge of spinsterhood, Anne re-encounters Frederick Wentworth as he courts her spirited young neighbour, Louisa Musgrove.
Persuasion is the last, fully-completed novel by Jane Austen, and it was not published until six months after her death. I think it is obvious from reading Persuasion and then comparing it to some of Austen’s earlier novels how much she had matured as a writer at this point and it makes me immensely sad to think of the wonders she could have produced had she only lived a little longer.
It is said that Austen became alarmed by the subject matter of this book, how young girls could be easily influenced by their friends and relations with regard to the decisions they made in their lives, particularly in relation to their love lives, by an experience she had herself in giving misguided advice to her niece on the matter of a suitor and the advisability of a long engagement.
Persuasion is the story of Anne Elliot, a young woman reaching that dangerous point of life where she becomes too old to be desirable as a bride and tips over to spinsterhood. Eight years previously, she had been deeply in love and had a chance at marriage, but her family and acquaintances had disapproved of the match and had persuaded her against it, a decision she now regrets. When the young man in question returns into Anne’s social orbit, she finds she still has strong feelings for him, but has to watch him court another girl.
Anne Elliot is a much more mature heroine than some we see in Jane Austen’s earlier books. She is more mindful and even-tempered than Lizzie Bennett, more sensible and less impulsive than Marianne Dashwood, but with a firmer and more decisive temperament than Fanny Price (who I have always found a little drippy for my tastes). Having given in previously to pleas from her nearest and dearest, she appears to have learnt from her mistake and become much firmer and more certain in her opinions, whilst retaining an obliging and sweet nature that cannot help but make her appealing to the other characters in the novel and the reader alike. Her pleasantness is thrown into sharp relief by the vain, selfish and snobby behaviour of her father and elder sister, and the whiny victimhood of her younger sister. The whole book sets her up as someone worthy of love and a second chance, and we cannot help but hope that Captain Wentworth’s heart is not entirely made of stone as far as Anne is concerned.
The action in the book moves from the family’s home of Kellynch Hall, to Mary’s home in a nearby village, to Lyme Regis and then on to Bath and provides an entertaining snapshot of the life of the landed gentry at the end of the eighteenth century. It throws light onto the ridiculous snobbery of people like Sir Walter Elliot, who have a title but no money, and who look down on people such as the naval officer he is forced to let his estate to, who has made money during his service to his country, but has no title. The reader is asked to judge who is the more noble and deserving of admiration and respect of these two men, and Sir Walter would be dismayed to find that the conclusion must not be drawn in his favour, despite his ‘good looks, and his entry in the books of the gentry.
Similarly, the reader is left to compare the worth of Anne’s two suitors, Captain Wentworth, formerly poor and undistinguished when he first proposed to Anne, and her cousin, Mr Elliot, heir to her father’s land and title, and a gentlemen of seemingly impeccable standing. I will not spoil the book for you by telling you how these two actually stack up in practice, but things are not always as they appear on the surface, an abiding theme in Austen’s work and a reminder to us all to really consider what traits and values have worth, and which are shallow and unworthy.
The main reason people love this book, and I have seen this mentioned many times so I know it is not just me, is The Letter. If there is no other reason to fall in love with the hero of this book (and there are plenty) The Letter will do it in an instant for any true romantic out there. Every woman dreams of receiving a letter like this one, it is possibly the most fabulous love letter ever sent in the history of novels and I will never get tired of sighing over it. If you think Darcy gives good letter, you need to read The Letter in Persuasion. It makes Captain Wentworth the most swoon-worthy romantic lead in classic literature for my tastes and he would be my choice for a companion on my ideal romantic weekend (The Irishman aside, of course!) We would go to Lyme Regis and walk in the sea air along the Cobb and he could read it aloud to me. Perfection.
So, Persuasion, the book that pulling it apart for an English exam did not ruin for me and my favourite Austen novel. I’d take it to my desert island just so I could read The Letter on a daily basis and imagine I was not alone, or that Captain Wentworth was going to sail by on his frigate and rescue me any moment. That should kill a few hours.
Persuasion is available in some beautiful collectors editions and you can buy a copy here.
About the Author
Jane Austen was an English novelist whose works of romantic fiction set among the gentry have earned her a place as one of the most widely read and most beloved writers in English literature.
Jane Austen was born in Steventon rectory on 16th December 1775. Her family later moved to Bath and then to Chawton in Hampshire. She wrote from a young age and Pride and Prejudice was begun when she was twenty-two years old. It was originally called First Impressions. It was initially rejected by the published she submitted it too and eventually published in 1813 after much revision.
All four of her novels – Sense and Sensibility (1811), Pride and Prejudice (1813), Mansfield Park (1814) and Emma (1815) published in her lifetime were published anonymously. Jane Austen died on 18th July 1817. Northanger Abbey and Persuasion (both 1817) were published posthumously.