Persuasion by Jane Austen
When people ask what my favorite book or movie is, I usually can’t give them a simple answer. It’s like choosing a favorite child (even though I only have the one), I say. I love so many books; you can’t possibly ask me to name just one favorite! I hem and haw and list five or ten books on my rotating favorites list.
But I’m going to admit, here and now, that I really do have one single favorite book, and that it’s Persuasion.
I’ve been thinking over this review for a few weeks now and have been having much more difficulty writing it than might be expected, given that I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve read this book and that I love nearly everything about it. But it’s important to me that I properly articulate why this book means so much to me.
It surprises me sometimes that more people don’t know about Persuasion. Everyone knows and loves Pride and Prejudice, which is kind of the sparkly diamond necklace of the Austen canon: beautiful and dazzling and obviously worthwhile. Persuasion is more of the tiny gold band, plain and sweet and perfect, fitted to the hand from long wear and love. Most people also know about Sense and Sensibility and Emma, mainly because they know Emma Thompson or Kate Winslet or Gwyneth Paltrow. Not as many people know Amanda Root, which means that not as many people know Anne Elliot, which is a true shame.
This book, to me, provides much more than “occupation for an idle hour, and consolation in a distressed one.” It is the book above all others that I know I can go to at any time and in any mood and come away feeling whole and happy, enlightened and enlivened.
It may sound silly to wax so poetic about what many would view as a typical chick-flick-Austen-love-story: poor boy meets well-to-do girl, they get engaged, she is persuaded by (probably snobby) friends that it would be better for him if she broke off the engagement, he gets upset and leaves to make a great career for himself in the Navy, she stays home and never marries. So far, so Nicholas Sparks.
Their paths do not cross again for eight years, which time has served to confirm Anne’s belief that Captain Frederick Wentworth was her ideal match, and to solidify Captain Wentworth’s anger at the woman he loved but who had not, as he believed, loved him well enough to keep him. He turns up in the neighborhood to visit his sister and to look for a wife—any woman but Anne Elliot.
Things work out, as they tend to do in Austen novels, but in a real and moving way that flows perfectly, leaving you with a sense that all is as it should be. No grand coincidences or deus ex machinas here. Anne and Captain Wentworth are drawn back together because there is no other way the world can possibly be; they are meant for each other.
But, for me, this is not primarily a love story.
I will admit that my love of love stories certainly doesn’t diminish my pleasure in this book, and that my sentimental heart beats wildly along with Anne’s through the more suspenseful and sweet portions of the story. But it’s not the romance that keeps me coming back to revisit this book every year or six months.
Ultimately, this is a story about hope. Hope that things can be mended, that mistakes can be made right. Hope that life can be good and worthwhile even if you have family troubles or heartbreak or other problems. And yes, the hope that lost love can return.
I think that’s why the basic Persuasion-style plot line—love is thwarted for a long time but eventually triumphs—is so popular and sees so many iterations. One of the more recent ones I can think of is the delightful movie Letters to Juliet. The ostensible main story line about a perky young journalist (Amanda Seyfried) looking to get her big break and her sparring with the grandson of a woman she’s writing about is cute enough, your standard chick-flick fare. But the secondary story about the grandmother, played by the inimitable Vanessa Redgrave, is one of the best movies I’ve seen in a while. Simply enough, this grandmother comes back to Italy after fifty years to find the boy she fell in love with as a girl and tell him that she’s sorry she didn’t meet him to run away together like she’d promised. She’s not necessarily looking for a grand reunion, romance, the works. She just wants to tell a person who was important to her that she’s sorry she let him down.
Of course things work out, just as they do in Persuasion. But if things never worked out, how would we be able to hope? If we had no memory of light, no hope that it would return, how would we bear the darkness? If we didn’t think that things could be mended, why would we ever try to make them right?
Anne, for all the dreary stretch of years clouded by regret, the dearth of real friendship and companionship in her life and the pain of suspense that she faces, still manages to keep hope and life and quiet joy alive, even when things look bleakest. That is her triumph. Even if Captain Wentworth had married Louisa, Anne would have kept that hope in life. The fact that things DO work out is just the icing on the cake.
And that is why this is my favorite book.
Well, that and the fact that Captain Wentworth can write one heck of a letter.