(The Bookish Catholics Resident Professor is back again! We welcome Dr. Ken Bugajski, Associate Professor of English at the University of St. Francis in Fort Wayne, Indiana. He shares his thoughts with us as we read Persuasion by Jane Austen.)
Persuasion is, as I said, my favorite Austen novel. One thing I like about it, and what sets it above Pride and Prejudice for me, is the importance of the past and the novel’s sense of loss. Now, that may seem a strange reason to like a book, but...I'll get to that.
There are a number of losses in Persuasion that stand out from Austen's other work. Of course, Sir Walter is a widower. We don’t get too much information about his wife, but Chapter 1 suggests that she was the kind of woman who made her husband a better man. An older character who is a widow or widower is not uncommon in Austen, but there is also Benwick, who is near the same age as our main characters. Benwick has also lost his love, and there really isn't any other character in Austen's novels who has had a loss--and a reaction to that loss--quite like Benwick. And though it is only temporary, Anne and Wentworth have, of course, also lost their loves. The permanence of Sir Walter's and Benwick's losses reflect on our main couple, and the knowledge that there are instances where lost love cannot be recovered heightens the drama when Wentworth and Anne meet again.
There is an autumnal feel to Persuasion as well, and Julia's favorite quotation (that she posted to Facebook) presents one passage where Austen incorporates this idea of autumn. There are others too, though they are small passages that are easy to miss. In chapter 5, for example, Anne dreads having to go to Bath and grieves having to miss "the influence so sweet and so sad of the autumnal months in the country." Later in Lyme, Anne reflects on the beauty of autumn when out walking. In literature, autumn is, almost always, a symbol of endings. Like Benwick and Sir Walter, these autumnal shadows increase the stakes for our heroine and hero. Anne and Wentworth are older, and they are in their own autumns--at least as far as being an eligible bachelorette and bachelor goes. One gets the sense this is their last chance before winter sets in.
Let me be clear here: I love Pride and Prejudice; it is a great novel, and surely Austen's prose in this novel is unmatched. But Pride and Prejudice--for all its sparkling wit and heightened romance--is spring and summer. Lizzie and Darcy face their obstacles and challenges, to be sure, but to be honest, from the first time Darcy refuses to dance with Lizzie, I never doubt they’ll end up together. For Lizzie and Darcy, it is all new beginnings; Pride and Prejudice is a book about falling in love.
Persuasion, though, is different in its emphasis. Anne and Wentworth have already fallen in love, long before the time when the novel begins. Their early relationship is marked by mistakes, and those mistakes have long-term consequences for both characters. Persuasion acknowledges that the past influences the present, that mistakes will be made, that lovers will hurt one another, and that heartbreaking loss exists. But love still wins. For Anne and Wentworth, it is all about choosing to begin again. For me, Persuasion is a book about being married--and that's why I like it better.