Persuasion is not Austen’s very best work, but for an Austen fan like me, it is still a delight. The main character, Anne Elliot, is the middle daughter of a baronet, Sir Walter. Her elder sister Elizabeth is her father’s favorite, and like her father is concerned primarily with wealth, station, and appearances. Sir Walter himself is a vain fop who dislikes Bath because there are too many plain women there. He’s a spendthrift and outright fool. Anne’s younger sister Mary, an airhead and whiner, is married to a gentleman who once showed an interest in Anne, but whom Anne rejected. Neither her father nor her sisters pays Anne any attention although she is the only family member with any intelligence and common sense. Anne’s mother is deceased and the role of protector and friend, indeed mother substitute, has been filled by Lady Russell, a good woman with much good sense who loves Anne dearly. Anne seems destined for spinsterhood and the role of surrogate mother for Mary’s neglected children.
As any Austen fan knows, the plot centers around finding a match for our heroine, but not just any match. It must be her lost love Captain Wentworth, the young naval officer who once made his intentions known to Anne, only to be rejected due to Lady Russell’s persuasion and Sir Walter’s objection as Wentworth was then near penniless and had no family connections. Now, years later, Wentworth returns with a fortune made at sea, but Anne is pursued by a fine-looking wealthy young fellow, her cousin in fact, who is the heir to the baronetcy and the entailed estate of Sir Walter since Sir Walter has no male children. She can be the lady of the estate and wife of a baronet, but she has doubts about her cousin’s character. I need not describe all the other relatives and characters as the direction of the plot cannot be a mystery to any reader.
What I love about Austen is how she writes with such intelligence and is not afraid to assume a similar intelligence on the part of the reader. Her sentence structure is elegant, her vocabulary immense and yet natural in the dialog of her characters, and her wit delightful. Of course the style is dated and out of fashion now, and the overt class prejudice is so blatant, even to some extent with her virtuous and open-minded heroines, that it can be off-putting to our modern ears. If words like thither, innoxious, plighted, and hitherto throw you for a loop, then Austen is not for you. Her prose is replete with sentences like: “She reentered the house so happy as to be obliged to find an alloy in some momentary apprehensions of its being possible to last.” They parse exquisitely for a grammarian but sag thickly like an overdecorated Christmas tree to others.
I first read this book in the 1970s when I needed a pocket book to read on the New York subway commuting to work. This time around I listened to the audiobook, which is perfectly read by Nadia May. I recommend it highly.