At the risk of sounding melodramatic, there is a feeling that I love, but don’t get to experience that often. It’s a kind of melancholic beauty, piercing in its intensity, with a haunted mien and nebulous structure that can be hard to pin down. It is the beauty of autumn rain, dark chocolate, and sad songs. The beauty of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, and Peter Heller’s The Dog Stars. The beauty of Joy Williams singing “Don’t Let Me Down”. The beauty of unrequited love, and memories of your children after they’ve grown and moved out of the house, or of your first love, surviving now only in your memory.
It’s the somber yearning of something powerful but just out of reach that causes me to melt. I love it, but don’t really seek it out because there is pain associated with it. The pain of loss, of mistakes, of inevitability. It’s bittersweet, and resides in the back of the throat, like a cry begging to be released.
I didn’t expect this book to evoke these kinds of feelings, but here we are. It slipped under the blanket of morose beauty and enveloped me in its warmth. The warmth of a promise fulfilled. The warmth of a broken heart mended. The warmth of love long remembered and never forgotten.
This book is more than 200 years old, has no real twists to speak of, is about characters I could (in many ways) barely identify with, and was about class anxiety that felt wholly antiquated and largely irrelevant to the modern world – but I found it captivating, the characters both human and likable (well, some of them), and the loss of comfort that is easily identifiable to a member of the middle class in an America that makes that categorization an increasingly fantastic dream.
The Elliot family is in financial trouble. The family’s matriarch has died, and the patriarch has done a terrible job managing their finances, despite sound advice from his daughter Anne. The patriarch, Sir Walter, decides to move the family to a cheaper home in Bath, and rent out their estate of Kellynch. Anne, the main character of Persuasion, had broken off an engagement to Frederick Wentworth, an undistinguished officer in the Royal Navy seven years before the novel begins. Now, Frederick returns to her life a wealthy and successful officer following the Napoleonic Wars.
Throughout this novel, characters are constantly trying to persuade other characters into making certain choices and behaving in certain ways as they jockey for social positions. The engagement between Anne and Frederick was encouraged by Lady Russell, a distant family member and motherly figure to Anne. Anne always regretted the decision, and this internal conflict between what someone wants to do versus what they’re expected to is a constant theme throughout the book.
Thus the title – though it seems that Jane Austen was inclined to calling this The Elliots. This book was published in 1817, along with Northanger Abbey, six months after Austen’s death. Her brother Henry gave this, her last finished novel, its name.
In my review of Lolita, I mentioned that I had never read Jane Austen. Narfna, Malin, and Merryn all gave me the encouragement I needed to conquer this self-imposed and needless hurdle. I’m not quite sure why I was never successful before now. I’ve tried reading Austen a few times over the years, and just never got into her. I’ve tried reading physical copies, but I’ve also tried audiobooks. None of them ever struck me. I listened to the audio dramatization read by Florence Pugh, and was immediately enveloped. It was wonderfully done, and I enjoyed the book immensely. So, thanks to all who got me to do something I should’ve done years ago.
If you’re struggling to finally read Jane Austen, this may be a good place to start.