Okay, guys. I have a confession to make. I hope you’ll still be my friends.
I’m not a fan of Jane Austen.
For starters, I’m not much of a romance reader. I do have romantic buttons, but they’re small and hard to find. I need some passion—by which I don’t even mean sex, but emotional intensity. Austen’s books are a bit.... bloodless.
Now to keep my literary feminist cred, I know that even if the romances don’t make me swoon, I ought to love these books for the social commentary. The problem? Said commentary consists of detailed depictions of the social lives of the independently wealthy. Few topics bore me more. I had the same problem with The Great Gatsby. No matter how worthy these novels may be, complete disinterest in the subject matter is a high hurdle.
Reading Persuasion crystallized all this for me. Of course, you shouldn’t judge Austen’s entire body of work by Persuasion; of all her books, this seems to inspire the most polarized opinions. (A lot of people hate Mansfield Park, too, but few consider it their favorite. Persuasion is either at the top of people’s Austen lists, or at the bottom.) There's good reason to believe that it wasn't even finished. Still, I came down on the “hated it” side.
Plenty of intelligent people have already written about the problems with this novel (this Slate article is a good example). Anne is a passive, tiresomely angelic character. The cast is divided into three basic categories: People We Are Supposed to Admire, whom we are told possess refined manners, sensible dispositions, intelligence, and self-awareness; People At Whom We Are Supposed to Chuckle Wryly, who are foolish but harmless; and People With No Redeeming Qualities Whatsoever, who are described in such terms as:
“The real circumstances . . . were, that the Musgroves had had the ill fortune of a very troublesome, hopeless son; and the good fortune to lose him before he reached his twentieth year; that he had been sent to sea, because he was stupid and unmanageable on shore; that he had been very little cared for at any time by his family, though quite as much as he deserved. . . .”
Which doesn’t actually tell us anything about the Musgroves’ son except that Jane Austen’s judgment of him is very poor – which is why I’ve categorized the characters as I have, because I know more about what Austen wants me to think of them than about the people themselves. That’s not incisive observation of human nature, it’s just shoving opinions down our throats.
Also, I was, um, bored. Take out keen psychological insight and all you’re left with is a stultifying story of wealthy young people with nothing to do but hang out with the same tiny social group all the time, for whom a grand adventure is a tame little beach trip. I know we are supposed to feel for Austen’s heroines because if they can’t catch a husband to be dependent on, they’ll have to either find a job as a governess or a blood relative to be dependent on. And sure, having so few options sucks, but you need outside knowledge of Austen’s world to really feel for them. There’s no sense of immediacy to the problem of the heroines’ futures, no chilling examples of what's in store if they're unsuccessful to spur them on in their husband-hunting. In a way it seems this serious backdrop is something added by fans to try to make the romances bigger and more important than the way they are actually presented in the books. Of course finding love is important to most people, now as well as then, and I don't object to the novels' being structured around romance as I do their being built of mundane social engagements, but it isn't exactly shown as a matter of life and death.
All that said, the romance here isn’t bad. There’s a sense of simmering passion between Anne and Captain Wentworth that I don’t remember from Austen’s other novels; it’s there in the way they hardly speak but are so physically aware of one another, in a way that seems unusual for Austen, whose characters are often scarcely physical beings at all. And the letter at the end is definitely swoonworthy. Still, I’m glad the book had only 200 pages.