Part VI: Persuasion, cont’d
I just finished Persuasion, and have gathered my thoughts. It has long been my favorite of Austen’s oeuvre, and nothing I’ve seen or done in the year since this project started has changed my mind. I still think it’s a beautiful, almost haunting, story. I still think that Anne Elliot is a wonderful heroine, and that Frederick Wentworth is a dashing, appealing hero. Both are very real, very human characters. Anne is the kind of person I aspire to be: she is kind, she is thoughtful, she is giving, she is smart and she is calm in the face of adversity. Frederick is the kind of man who women want and who men want to be. But neither is perfect. Far from it. Anne has her faults. There are people out there who think she’s a doormat. But I still don’t see it. The entire Musgrove family wishes that Anne had married Charles. They confide in her, and they trust her judgment without question. The Harvilles like her. Captain Benwick likes her. The Crofts like her. In other words, everyone but her own family likes and appreciates her and, given what we know about them, why would we trust their judgment?
Frederick certainly has his faults. He’s resentful and even almost cruel to Anne at times. But he’s still essentially a good person. We see that early on, when Mrs. Musgrove grieves for her dead son. Frederick knows full well that Dick Musgrove was a waste of space, and the reader knows it too, but Frederick doesn’t let on for a second. He lets Mrs. Musgrove remember her son the way she wants to. He sees how tired Anne is during the Long Walk and gets his sister to take her home in the carriage. When Louisa does her swan dive, Frederick refers to Anne reflexively by her first name (which is quite a shock, given the formality of the period), and lets everyone know how much respect he has for her and her abilities. If people can forgive Darcy for how he treated his best friend, I don’t understand why some people have trouble forgiving Frederick for having been resentful. I don’t blame Frederick for being resentful. The woman he adored, and who he thought adored him back, dumped him. Sounds pretty straightforward to me. His declaration of love is arguably the most beautiful thing I’ve ever read. He lays his soul bare and gives Anne another chance to stomp on it. But she doesn’t.
I love Anne and Frederick. I love seeing these two lonely people get their happy ending. Anne is good, kind and selfless. She’s Fanny Price with more personality, more physical strength and more experience. She’s a better judge of character than Elizabeth Bennet. She’s as emotionally strong as Elinor Dashwood, yet as much of a romantic as Marianne. As I said earlier, she’s the kind of person I aspire to be but will never succeed in being. Frederick is as honorable as Edward Ferrars or George Knightley, as romantic as Colonel Brandon and as enigmatic as Fitzwilliam Darcy. In other words, I think he has it all.
As for the rest of the characters, I’ll start off by saying that I don’t hate Lady Russell. She did what she thought was right, and I don’t blame her. We know what happened to Miss Frances’ marriage to Mr. Price in Mansfield Park, and Lady Russell understood that this same kind of future was a distinct possibility for Anne if she were to marry a penniless sailor with no prospects. Captain Harville was injured and he and his wife lived on relatively little, but Mrs. Harville was not the privileged daughter of a baronet who was accustomed to considerable luxury. Lady Russell loved Anne enough to worry about her, which is more than her own flesh-and-blood did. Sir Walter was too snobbish to allow the marriage. Baronets’ daughters couldn’t go out and get jobs to help support their families, so Anne could have been destitute. No mother (or surrogate mother) worth her salt wants a beloved daughter to suffer, and Lady Russell was worried that marriage to Frederick would mean that Anne would suffer deprivations that she was not prepared for. None of us has 20/20 foresight, so Lady Russell did what she could with the knowledge she had. Given Frederick’s behavior at the time, she was right in advising against a marriage.
Sir Walter, Elizabeth and Mary are three of my favorite comic characters in the Austen canon. I laugh every time I read Admiral Croft’s comment that he (Sir Walter) would never set the Thames on fire. The description of Mary as being less repulsive as Elizabeth also makes me laugh out loud. Elizabeth is a piece of work. Mary is just ridiculous.
Mr. Elliot is not a sexual predator the way Wickham and Willoughby are, and his subplot is not as fleshed out as it could be, but he’s still quite villainous. Anne shows us just how good her judgment is when she tells Lady Russell that she and Mr. Elliot would not suit.
Once again, I finish Persuasion in awe of Austen’s abilities. I love this book more with each reading.