Tuesday, February 24, 2015

In An Agreeable Manner: Jane Austen's "Persuasion"

“There is hardly any personal defect," replied Anne, "which an agreeable manner might not gradually reconcile one to.” (Chapter 5, Persuasion by Jane Austen)

Ah, Anne Elliot and her consistently optimistic trust in agreeable manners.

Such manners are, when truly genuine, which is to say, when they are the indications of a good and compassionate nature, are the nobility of the individual and the enlightened cohesion of society. And Anne Elliot, perhaps the clearest persona of Jane Austen in her canon, exemplifies agreeable manners in the highest degree.

With agreeable manners Anne Elliot overcomes the preening snobs which are her father and elder sister. With them she serves (usually without thanks) all those around her.  With them she eventually wins the love of her life.  And with these agreeable manners, Anne profoundly represents Miss Austen’s wonderfully persuasive argument of this fine and entertaining novel; namely, that kindness, humility, and a servant-orientation are blessings beyond value.

Persuasion, Austen’s last novel, is one of my favorites. The author once again gives us extremely realistic heroes -- characters who are imperfect and inconsistent in the very way that real human beings are.  Austen’s characters grow.  They change.  They benefit from experience and reflection and advice. They make mistakes and yet find motivation to persevere.  Such characters, along with Austen’s remarkable skill in depicting conversation, family relationships, and the nuances of love and affection, make for very rich reading indeed.

Persuasion provides the reader with not only admirable heroes (Anne, Captain Wentworth, Admiral and Mrs. Croft, the Musgroves) but with extremely life-like antagonists.  Austen doesn’t strive to create super villains. Instead, she gives us the kind we all deal with in normal life -- people who are rude, boring, full of themselves, tedious, and comically self-centered.  Persuasion has a couple of dandies in this line – make that three of them – all members of poor Anne’s family.  They are so disagreeable that one sometimes tires of having them on the scene, much like real-life people we cross the street to avoid. Still, Anne’s eventual triumph over their pettiness makes everything alright in the end.

And, though not wanting to be a spoiler to those who have never read Persuasion, I will at least say that Anne Elliot does triumph in this engaging 19th Century novel of manners. It is a story that harkens back to the Cinderella legend but with characters, plot, and writing expertise that pleases the modern reader in distinct and unique ways.

Our book club, the Notting Hill Napoleons, discussed Persuasion last Friday evening and we had a very pleasant, stimulating time.  In fact, it was one of those occasions (rather rare lately) in which we all liked the book very much and our conversation about it was fun and productive.  We did find a flaw or two (Mrs. Clay, what were you doing in the book?), but they were quite minor compared to the enjoyment we experienced.  So, by all means, take it as a recommendation not just from me but also from the Notting Hill Napoleons, Jane Austen’s Persuasion is a fine -- and quite agreeable -- way to spend a few evenings.