Sunday 8 May 2022

She was only Anne

Persuasion I was heading for Bath and read that Jane Austen's posthumously published Persuasion is set there. Ideal reading for my visit, I thought.

The first few chapters set the scene. Anne Elliot, unmarried middle-daughter of Sir Walter of Kellynch Hall, still pines for her first love, Frederick Wentworth. They had been engaged when she was 19, but she was "persuaded to believe the engagement a wrong thing: indiscreet, improper, hardly capable of success, and not deserving it." For her father, "Vanity was the beginning and the end... vanity of person and of situation." On the death of their mother, the eldest sister Elizabeth had succeeded "to all that was possible, of her mother's rights and consequence", and the younger Mary "had acquired a little artificial importance, by becoming Mrs Charles Musgrove." Anne has "an elegance of mind and sweetness of character," yet in her family "her word had no weight, her convenience was always to give way - she was only Anne." She is of course our heroine.

From here on, there are no surprises and no real plot mystery. You can guess what the ending will be, but that's not important. The interest is in the twists and turns, the misunderstandings that arise, and the politeness that is always shown even to the most reprehensible characters. Indeed the book is full of deliciously dislikable rogues and snobs.

Times are changing tho'. We discover how men who served as naval officers during the Napoleonic Wars were able to make their fortunes. This did not however make them acceptable acquaintances for Sir Walter, who complained that it was "the means of bringing persons of obscure birth into undue distinction, and raising men to honours which their fathers and grandfathers never dreamt of". Anne's first and only love is of course by now Captain Frederick Wentworth.

Austen not only reveals the mores of society that are changing, but also comments on the literary developments, "the richness of the present age", early 19th century romanticism and its "first-rate poets", "Mr Scott and Lord Byron".

It's no surprise that one of the major themes of the book is persuasion, the pressure on young women of the day to marry, not where the heart lies, but where it best suits the families of those involved. However you don't need to know this to enjoy it, nor do you need to be a scholarly reader. For me there was only one disappointment. The action moves from Somerset to Lyme, and only about half way through does it shift to Bath, by which time I had already quit the place.

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