Persuasion is not well read, but it is perhaps Jane Austen’s best work. Yet it is not one I would recommend for a first time reader. Its deep moral sentiments, its understated conversations, its complexity of situation amid deep simplicity make it perhaps a more difficult novel to appreciate.
Emma, Pride and Prejudice, and Sense and Sensibility are rather exuberant in terms of drama, characterization, and humor–Persuasion, far a quieter.
I wish to present one felicitous instance of the artfulness at work in the novel.
Two formerly engaged lovers, estranged by misunderstanding and resentment, meet again after nearly ten years. Having spent time in one another’s company by way of mutual acquaintances, a short stay at Lime ensues, but ends in grief for one of their party.
Meeting later, they discuss the events:
“I should very much like to see Lyme again,” said Anne.
“Indeed! I should not have supposed that you could have found anything in Lyme to inspire such a feeling. The horror and distress you were involved in, the stretch of mind, the wear of spirits! I should have thought your last impressions of Lyme must have been strong disgust.”
“The last hours were certainly very painful,” replied Anne; “but when pain is over, the remembrance of it often becomes a pleasure. One does not love a place the less for having suffered in it, unless it has been all suffering, nothing but suffering, which was by no means the case at Lyme. We were only in anxiety and distress during the last two hours, and previously there had been a great deal of enjoyment.”
In this dialogue, we hear something not only of Anne character of forbearance, but of heart. The sentiments she expresses are not merely moral in the little sense of the word, but sentiments guided by love.
One must understand that as true lovers, our speakers speak not merely of the recent past, but of themselves, intentionally or not.
And so the felicitous measure which Anne’s response gives to the Captain can only be a joy for him to hear. For, having passed through the disappointment and perhaps bitterness of ten years, in this figure she reverses the proportion. She construes the measure of “suffering” as “passing,” as but “hours” in comparison to the whole of the period. This is in fact the exact opposite of their own history which sets a few happy months against a decade; yet it reveals what may certainly be true in the hearts of lovers: that the good can ever outweigh the bad by dint of its blessing and dearness.
This dialogue can only be fully enjoyed in light of the very final dialogue of the novel, but I shall not ruin that also.
I merely wish to point out the graceful rhetoric which is not merely the work of prose, but which proceeds from the hearts of all true lovers and reveals truth often hidden in the world–the true nature of good and evil as weighed by wisdom and love, and the gift we become capable of giving to one another when we remain true to that measure.
Knowing Jane Austen’s own circumstances, I can only read her novels in the light of hope. And like Hope, Jane Austen it seems, does not disappoint.