Today was the anniversary of Jane Austen's birthday, maybe you've heard?
At Jane Austen's House, we honoured the day with an open house:
mince pies, cups of tea and free admission.
For the past 18 months, I've spent most of my Thursdays in Chawton, Hampshire -- talking about Jane, thinking about Jane, and of course, reading about all things Austen. Having said that, I'm not one of the dedicated miniaturists in life. I don't read the six books over and over, as some of her fans do. I'm much more likely to read a novel that's been obviously influenced by the Austen style or plot-lines. (The Three Weissmans of Westport comes immediately to mind.) There is one novel that I do read almost every year, though, and that's Persuasion.
It is not unusual for Austen lovers to nominate a favourite novel, and by a long chalk the front-runners are Pride and Prejudice and Persuasion. I like and admire P & P, but without hesitation I would choose Persuasion as one of my desert island books. I recently read an interview with Nigella Lawson and she named the following as her all-time favourite books: Persuasion (listed first), any Nancy Mitford, Little Women by Louisa May Alcott, and I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith. I didn't really need any other reason to adore Nigella Lawson, but discovering that we have the same short-list of favourite books did make me feel that extra bit of kinship to her. (I would argue that being influenced and formed by the same body of books does create a sororal bond.)
Not everyone is similarly persuaded, though. A friend recently asked for a recommendation for her Book Club and I encouraged her to choose Persuasion.
Her feedback was not, to put it delicately, enthusiastic.
I can't remember the particulars of what she said . . . probably because I was too busy refuting them, both in mind and mouth . . . but I do recall that she didn't care for Anne Elliot, the heroine. Something about "wimpy;" something about wanting to shake her and why didn't she take more control of her life.
I immediately went into my professor mode, trying to explain the aristocratic confines of life for an on-the-shelf and not-quite-rich-enough woman like Anne. There is no denying, though, that Anne has a certain passive quality. I'm quite susceptible to characters who are good and kind, but a little prone to being pushed around -- but not everyone shares that taste, I realise.
Some biographers believe that Anne Elliot was partly based on Jane's sister Cassandra, who had her own experience of "loving longest, when existence or hope is gone." (Cassandra's fiance died, and apparently she long carried a torch for him. At any rate, she never married -- nor even seemed to contemplate marriage.) If so, the dénouement of Persuasian -- in which two lovers, long separated, are reunited -- was the ultimate in wish-fulfillment. Although it is not the most obviously romantic of Austen's novels, with its slightly melancholy and autumnal tone, I think it is the most profoundly romantic. It is the novel for every shy girl (or wallflower woman) who thinks someone will come along and see her for what she really is. Don't we all want to be loved for our intrinsic qualities? In a world that admires surface gloss more than ever, the idea of being seen and recognized and chosen is still heart-thrilling.
Why not seize the pleasure at once?
How often is happiness destroyed by preparation, foolish preparation.
I long to be the sort of person who seizes the pleasure at once, but I have the feeling that I am too often caught planning and worrying and second-guessing myself . . . definitely more of an Anne Elliot. Happily, Jane Austen -- who only wrote six completed novels -- provides more than one kind of heroine.