To most people Pride and Prejudice is the ultimate Jane Austen novel. For many years, I thought so too. Who could resist Mr Darcy? As for the feisty Elizabeth Bennett, I thought her the bee’s knees. Now, in my mid-thirties, I have recently revisited Persuasion, which is by far one of Jane Austen’s less popular novels, but I have come to appreciate and admire the quieter virtues of Anne Elliot.
I had first read Persuasion in my university days, out of hunger for another Jane Austen novel after I had devoured Pride and Prejudice, Emma, and Sense and Sensibility. Back then, I had dismissed Anne Elliot as a lacklustre heroine who paled in comparison to the vibrant Elizabeth Bennett.
As a young woman, I thought Anne insipid and weak, because she meekly submitted to her selfish sisters’ insults and whims. I had wanted Anne to be fierce and vocal, actively retorting their cruel words and demands. In short, I wanted Anne to be like Elizabeth Bennett. Now, I appreciate Anne’s quiet endurance, for life has taught me that impulsive outburst often do many harm than good. This is especially true in my day job where I manage insurance claims. The need to mollify angry, hostile and sometimes irrational clients is the bread and butter of my role. When I first got the job, several years ago, my voice often rose pitch by pitch, matching my clients’ escalating animosity. Over the years, I have learnt that dignified silence or a calm retort works best. It is not always easy to keep my temper in check, but there is no doubt it is the better response.
Back then, I had discounted Anne’s steadfast character and unassuming intelligence. I couldn’t understand Captain Frederick Wentworth’s devotion to Anne. I thought her plain and dull. Now, I think Anne is more deserving of love than Elizabeth Bennett.
Do you feel differently about a novel you had first read long ago?
Here is a blurb of Persuasion by Jane Austen on Goodreads
Twenty-seven-year old Anne Elliot is Austen’s most adult heroine. Eight years before the story proper begins, she is happily betrothed to a naval officer, Frederick Wentworth, but she precipitously breaks off the engagement when persuaded by her friend Lady Russell that such a match is unworthy. The breakup produces in Anne a deep and long-lasting regret. When later Wentworth returns from sea a rich and successful captain, he finds Anne’s family on the brink of financial ruin and his own sister a tenant in Kellynch Hall, the Elliot estate. All the tension of the novel revolves around one question: Will Anne and Wentworth be reunited in their love?
Jane Austen once compared her writing to painting on a little bit of ivory, 2 inches square. Readers of Persuasion will discover that neither her skill for delicate, ironic observations on social custom, love, and marriage nor her ability to apply a sharp focus lens to English manners and morals has deserted her in her final finished work.