The first book I chose for my Romance Reading Challenge was Persuasion and I’m so glad that I did! If you can think of a better way to spend a cosy Autumn evening than by the fireside with hot chocolate and Jane Austen then, well, frankly I think that you’re lying…
I first read Persuasion as a teenager while I was staying with my grandmother in (conveniently) Bath, and whilst I remember it being my favourite Austen novel, at fourteen I never noticed the fact that it’s basically a Cinderella story for grown-ups. Austen takes an undervalued heroine and a dashing naval hero and gives them a satisfying happy ending, but she does so by turning the fairy-tale on its head. Anne Eliot and Frederick Wentworth aren’t an idealised hero and heroine. If they’d run off together in the first place then maybe they would have been, but Austen picks up eight years after their original failed love story left off, concentrating on themes of bitterness, sacrifice, memory, and the enduring nature of true, not just first, love. It’s not quite as romantic, but it’s definitely more relatable and poignant – and so incredibly subtle that no one else in the novel realises who Cinderella is until almost the very last page…
So how does the fairy-tale go for grown-ups (or in this case, a 27 year old heroine)?
Anne as Cinderella
If Elizabeth Bennett is the Austen heroine we want to be, then Anne is probably the one we think we might be (or is that just me?) She’s so overlooked that she doesn’t even appear for the first few pages of her own novel, and then gets overshadowed for another couple of chapters by her two horrible sisters and loathsome father (in a refreshing twist, the mother gets to be the goodie). Anne is also a heroine in decline, whose looks are said to have already faded, but whose common sense, empathy and humanity have only increased since the years of her disappointment.
Captain Wentworth as Prince Charming
Wentworth, meanwhile, is definitely not Prince Charming. He’s a Captain, so he has a kind of title, but at the start of the novel he’s so bitter he doesn’t even want to see Anne again. When they’re reunited, he actually reflects on how bad she looks! He courts another woman and doesn’t dance with our heroine at all. Then, when he eventually realises that he does still care for her, he becomes tongue-tied, jealous, awkward and even rude (if we take the operatic performance in the Assembly Rooms to represent the ball, then he actually walks out on her!) Just to emphasise, definitely not Prince Charming.
Evil Stepmothers and Fairy Godmothers
I like the fact that Austen doesn’t make anyone evil in this novel (in the case of her family, they’re just vain and thoughtless). Older women actually come off pretty well – also a refreshing change. Lady Russell, who might fulfil the role of evil stepmother after she persuades Anne against marrying Wentworth, is still her friend, and is shown to have acted from good motives, whilst Mrs Croft, who might represent the Fairy Godmother in reuniting them, only does so inadvertently. Mrs Smith, Anne’s relentlessly cheerful friend, is a far better candidate, revealing the truth about Mr Eliot’s real motives in pursuing her, despite the fact that it potentially hinders her own future.
The Glass Slipper
Austen doesn’t use a glass slipper. She uses something far more appropriate for a writer – a letter. And what a letter! ‘You pierce my soul!’ No matter how much we might love shoes, what woman wouldn’t prefer to receive a letter like Wentworth’s? Austen’s heroes generally write good letters, but this is the absolute pinnacle.
But the best thing about this fairytale? Persuasion is a masterclass in understated emotion. The hero and heroine barely speak and yet they’re acutely aware of each other. Every moment they’re together is fraught with tension, for them and us. There’s no nastiness, no recriminations or accusations, and yet they both make huge emotional journeys. Anne learns to make her own independent decisions rather than be persuaded, and Frederick comes to realise that his bitterness has only been hurting himself (ok, and maybe Louisa Musgrave a little). Austen shows just how much drama can be achieved internally. It’s my favourite of all her novels because it’s also the most hopeful – the one where we know the hero and heroine are mature enough to know what they’re doing. In this case, we know the happy ever after is forever.
Also, it contains possibly the most romantic line in any novel EVER:
‘A man does not recover from such a devotion of the heart to such a woman! He ought not; he does not.’
Suddenly I don’t care if he’s not Prince Charming. I’d marry him just for that line.