Persuasion by Jane Austen is perhaps my second favorite Austen novel, following Pride and Prejudice which still holds a solid first place. I’ve read it before, as I have all of Austen’s novels but this one I had forgotten altogether and wasn’t sure what to expect.
The novel begins with Anne Elliot approaching the age when young women are no longer considered marriageable. Eight years ago, she had been persuaded (hence, the title) to turn down the proposal of a man she loved because her family did not feel he was worthy of her. Most of her family seem unconcerned about Anne’s prospects and are too self-absorbed to fret over the inevitability of her being an old maid. Except for a cousin, a woman who was especially vehement in talking Anne out of accepting this previous proposal, Anne is ignored except in how she can best serve the needs, mostly narcissistic and imagined, of her immediate family.
Given that this is an Austen novel, let’s forego the discussion of the inevitable happy ending. Instead, I want to share how amusing I find it that so many contemporary women wish they could return to the simpler days of Austen’s time.
Anne is all of 27 when the novel starts and she’s already past her prime. In fact, her family has doubts that she will ever marry at all, let alone marry well. And seriously, this is all she could do. Because of her class, she cannot work, even as a governess. Instead, she must marry or end up living with a married relative. Perhaps, she could live with her older cousin but she certainly couldn’t live alone. Such a thing would be unheard of.
And the only reason she was warned off accepting this one man’s proposal of marriage boiled down to his having “no fortune.” He joins the navy, as many young men with no fortune did at this time, and makes his fortune. The conflict (what little there is in a romance novel) arises from the fact that, because Anne has already spurned his affections, propriety would suggest he would not propose again. Even in spite of the fact that Anne’s father has foolishly squandered the family’s fortune and they themselves have fallen on hard times.
It reminds me very much of the propriety and pride of the Old South after the Civil War, where the now impoverished aristocrats still held court and swore that the “South would rise again.”
What makes Austen’s worldview so appealing is that the protagonist marries for love, never for the typically socially mandated reasons. The truth is, however, women were no less shuttled about as so much chattel, often suffering only slightly less as a wife than they would as an old maid.
There is nothing charming or simple about this and we should not look back at a time when women were rarely educated as something ideal. Nor should we forget to appreciate how much things have improved because we are less often defined and/or determined by our class than we are by our choices. Yes, there are still (and likely always will be) class differentiation and those with the most wealth will inevitably have the most power. But we also live in a time when someone who comes from a poor background can work up to so much more and when women are not restricted in their daily associations to only those that are of equal or appropriate social standings.
After all, how many of us on the internet would interact at all if we were so conservatively and rigidly restricted by our race/gender/class/education/etc.?
So while I obviously enjoy reading Jane Austen I always find myself grateful that things have changed and can’t help but think that those who yearn for “the good old days” are out of their minds.