Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Persuasion - Old Flames

I thought we needed a few inspiring pictures, so here is the first!

I love writing and reading old flame stories. Perhaps that is why Persuasion is my favourite of Jane Austen’s books. There is something so seductive about the idea of unfinished business and what might have been, of characters learning to love and trust again. But old flame books are, in my experience, very difficult to write. Firstly you have to deal with the reason why your hero and heroine parted in the first place. If it was all down to a big misunderstanding and one blunt conversation will clear everything up, it’s hard to sustain the conflict convincingly for the whole of the book. Then there is the assumption that once everything is clear between the two of them they will fall in love again straight away. Wrong. They need to find each other again, rediscover all the things they loved the first time and start to trust each other again. Such things take time. And Persuasion is, in my opinion, a master class in how to do this.

In Persuasion there are no big misunderstandings keeping Anne Elliot and Frederick Wentworth apart. The cause of their estrangement was Anne’s refusal of Wentworth’s proposal of marriage when she was 19. It would be true to say that Anne has, in fact, brought most of her problems on herself. Even though she was in love with Wentworth, she allowed herself to be persuaded by her family and her close friend Lady Russell that the marriage was doomed. It was “indiscreet, improper, hardly capable of success and not deserving any” because Frederick had no fortune and Lady Russell disapproved of his brilliance, confidence and headstrong nature. (He sounds like the perfect hero, doesn’t he!) So Anne turned Wentworth down and in the eight years that followed never met another man who could measure up to him.

Despite, or perhaps because of, Anne’s mistake, the reader is firmly on her side. She has paid a huge price for her choice in letting down her own standards by allowing worldly prudence to outweigh love. So now, of course, we are rooting for her to get back together with Wentworth and to live happily ever after.

When Anne and Wentworth meet again there is, naturally, some awkwardness between them. She observes that he admires Louisa Musgrove. He thinks she may be intending to marry her cousin (and her father’s heir) Walter Elliot. But the real emotional barrier between the two of them is the fact that Wentworth feels that Anne should have had the strength to resist the persuasion. He feels she gave him up to easily. In order to be reunited the couple have to get past this barrier.

Yet despite that, the two are very aware of one another. A gleeful Mary comments to Anne: “Captain Wentworth was not very gallant by you, Anne… He said you were so altered he should not have known you again.” But gradually through a series of events that Jane Austen builds up with masterful skill, Wentworth starts to recognise Anne’s true worth and to value her again. There is a very telling moment at Lyme Regis when he notices Walter Elliot looking at her with admiration, and when Louisa Musgrove is injured Wentworth turns automatically to Anne’s calmness and competence in the emergency.

From that point the tables are brilliantly turned on Wentworth as he experiences the re-awakening of all his feelings for Anne whilst having to watch Walter Elliot courting her. And in order to balance the story it is Anne who finally brings Wentworth back to her side with her public discussion about love with Captain Harville and her avowal of constancy. “All the privilege I claim for my own sex… is that of loving longest… when hope is gone.”

Persuasion beautifully illustrates the way in which old flames can rekindle their love for one another. At the beginning of the story Anne still has regrets about losing Wentworth whilst he thinks he has moved on. Through a series of events Jane Austen brings them closer together and shows them rediscovering all the things that they admired in one another in the first place. They don’t suddenly fall into each other’s arms – their relationship develops slowly but tenderly until the final declaration.

Letter-writing is almost a lost art these days but the letter that Wentworth writes to Anne in order to declare his feelings for her is as ardent and moving and romantic now as anything more modern could ever be:

”I offer myself to you again with a heart even more your own than when you almost broke it eight years and a half ago…”

Sigh…

8 Comments:

Blogger Carolynn Carey said...

It's been so long since I've read Persuasion that I remember little about it--the bane of a wretched memory. But now I MUST re-read it, and soon! Thanks for sharing with us that wonderful line from Wentworth's letter to Anne. "Sigh" is the perfect commentary on it.

9:04 AM  
Blogger jane said...

This is my favourite of all Jane Austen's novels. I love the way she keeps us guessing all the way to the end about whether they can overcome everything to end up together. I also love the fact that you can visit the places in Bath that she writes about - a stroll along the gravel walk can be very romantic!

12:44 AM  
Blogger Anna Campbell said...

Actually, Persuasion is my favourite JA too. Although it makes me sad because, like late Mozart, she seems to be taking a different path, building on what makes her earlier work so marvellous, but touching on something new that is so rich and poignant. And of course, she died so young that she never had the chance to explore these new themes. The first time I read it, I remember crying when I read Anne's letter and I still find it an incredibly moving piece of writing. And thank you for the picture of Ciaran Hinds. He was just right as the dashing Captain Wentworth!

12:32 PM  
Blogger Nightwriter said...

Oh to receive a letter like that ...
At the start of the book you just know that they will end up together again but the suspense is masterful and when I first read the book I remember doing so practically in one sitting because I was so totally involved with Anne and her life. I must admit it is a while since I read Persuasion (a re-read is definitely on the cards)and perhaps I have forgotten some of the points, but I do now wonder at Wentworth's continuing single state for the following eight years. Would he not have formed another attachment in that time - I know the situation fits the romantic bill but this little niggle is at the back of my mind. I am, however, very thankful he did not! Apologies to those of you who have read the book recently if I have forgotten something very obvious about this, do put me right if you have.

1:37 PM  
Blogger Nicola said...

Interesting point about why Wentworth never formed another attachment. Maybe he was away at sea too much to form a lasting relationship or maybe subconsciously he couldn't find anyone to compare with Anne. Then, when he is back in her company he is almost deliberately rejecting her by turning towards Louisa Musgrove. I think it's very clever that he is practically committed to Louisa when he realises that she can't really hold a candle, character-wise, to Anne. Luckily JA contrives a convincing way to free him or he might have spent the rest of his life regretting what might have been...

Nicola

10:33 PM  
Blogger Nightwriter said...

Thanks for your comment Nicola. I still have a bit of a problem with the time lapse - but I can understand the rejection of Anne in favour of Louisa (perhaps a bit of unspoken male pride thrown in here for good measure? Clever Jane!)until he comes to his senses....

10:06 AM  
Blogger Melanie said...

What strikes me, particularly from the plot of 'Persuasion', is what a good observer of human nature JA actually was. I think 'old flame' plots by some modern-day historical romance authors can be too contrived i.e. it's often a set of external circumstances that bring about the Hero and Heroine's initial fall out, whereas good old JA focuses on internal struggles. As a result, the story rings true even for today's modern reader, even though the tale was penned two-hundred years ago. Just goes to show you that human nature doesn't change...

12:03 PM  
Blogger ED Denson said...

I've always wondered what Ann said to Capt Wentworth when she broke up with him. As the novel explains it to us she had good reasons which should have left him more likely to get in touch when he made some money. That aside, we see in the opening of Mansfield Park that not all men with no money make money after they get married, nor, of couse, do all sailors come back from the wars. Had Ann married him and he died, she would have been a widow with no money. So, as she says, the value of the advice given to her depends upon the event - which makes the advice useless. But back to the point, the breakup is a weak point in the plot, to me.

9:51 PM  

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