I finished Jane Austen’s Persuasion yesterday and found it sadder than the BBC production I had seen previously. Though it is written in third person, telling Anne’s thoughts makes it almost first person, so it feels like Anne is telling her opinions about how she is treated, rather than being shown how she is treated as a fly on the wall. The camera seems more objective in it’s portrayal of the selfishness of others than Anne’s thoughts do. With Anne evaluating everyone in her head, she can come across as secretly judgmental, resentful and superior.
I also couldn’t escape the impression that this last work of Ms. Austen, written while she was suffering from the illness that would take her a year later, was semi-autobiographical. She had been separated from her one love in her youth and had not been given very much of a second chance. She lived under precarious financial security. She was brighter and quieter than most people she encountered. And by this point she suffered from lack of energy and was fragile.
So while I had easier sympathy for Anne on screen, perhaps I can see her more realistically through Austen’s own words. Austen probably was the brightest but most hidden star in the room. How is such a one to deal with that? Subtly, as she did? I hear one of her first stories, Lady Susan, isn’t so subtle. Maybe she had to repent of that by hiding herself. But she couldn’t keep it totally under wraps, so she let it leak out through her characters.
But Anne is supposed to be completely justified in all of her sufferings. It is good that she was willing to suffer, but perhaps it is in what she takes joy in that needs further scrutiny. She (or her very sympathetic narrator) seems to delight in her sisters’ suitors, husband and children preferring her to sisters. She is very happy in the attention and appreciation of men, which she gets more and more towards the end of the book. It’s as if she was starving for it, and finally fed on it with rapture. She always had Lady Russell’s admiration, but it was not prized. Lady Russell’s regard held her back from the engagement all those years ago to someone not worthy of her in social station, but was worthy in brains, kindness, and ambition, which qualities Anne held in higher esteem.
I still admire Ms. Austen’s greatness, and I sympathize with her pain and suffering in feeling so deprived, but if she had gotten her happy ending, I think either she would have been disillusioned or ruined by the pride of her success or ease of life.
Should we embrace our sufferings rather than seek to escape through idealism, or seek retribution, even at the hands of others? I don’t think we know well enough what is good for us. And this is the conclusion Anne drew. It was better for her to suffer under bad advice rather than to disregard Lady Russell, who was an honorable woman. I give conditions in the words “idealism” and “honorable” that leave loopholes for other situations. I will have that in mind when I get occasion to read another Austen novel.