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9 may 2008

Jane Austen has been having a good couple of years. In Becoming Jane, played by Anne Hathaway, she made the very un-Austen-like life choice not to marry a rich suitor (Laurence Fox) who turns out to be virtuous, forthright, and sensible. In The Jane Austen Book Club, her six novels helped a raft of characters steer away from the shoals of mid-life romantic crisis. And recently, all six of those novels were shown in various recent video versions on PBS in America, along with yet another para-Austen historical fiction, Miss Austen Regrets. In 2017, she'll have been dead 200 years, but unlike almost every other celebrity, Jane Austen just gets more and more famous as the decades roll by.

The Jane Austen for the early 21st century is, of course, the über-chick-lit-author. As The Jane Austen Book Club seems to indicate, we see her books essentially as romances. But reading them does not risk the déclassé associations entailed by picking up a puffy-cover potboiler at the grocery store, or even a pastel-bound trade edition of some new saga about fashion, shopping, and guys with sensitive eyes. Jane Austens come in series of classics, tastefully covered, decorously fonted. It is not coincidental that the most socially mortifying moment in The Jane Austen Book Club comes when Hugh Dancy as the most sensitive of the guys purchases a garish omnibus Austen the size of a phone book. Looked like a good move to me, but then, I'm a guy.

Austen's novels, for contemporary culture, are about women finding the right men in a desperately shallow pool of eligible datees. And their plots, which all end with the marriage of the clever heroine to exactly the right man, don't tend to discourage this interpretation. Mr. Right is never a fascinating stranger. He can be a long-time friend (Emma) or even a first cousin (Mansfield Park). If he's of newer acquaintance (Pride & Prejudice, Northanger Abbey), he must have the fascinatingness wrung out of him by plot pressures, so that he's fairly well-vaccinated against the prospect of becoming excessively interesting once he's our heroine's husband. Sense & Sensibility's two sisters find one husband from column A and one from column B, an in-law of sorts and a dignified stranger. Dignity is the keyword – not to say drabness. In the most famous of Austen's novels, Pride & Prejudice, it's only in the Hollywood versions that Mr. Darcy is broodingly irresistible. In Austen's prose, he's someone who learns how to become a good listener and a judicious writer of big checks.

In Persuasion, the eventual husband is sea captain Frederick Wentworth. In a wrinkle on other Austen plots, Frederick is not quite a stranger and not quite an old friend. In fact, he's heroine Anne Elliott's ex, of sorts; they had been engaged to marry years before, until a certain Lady Russell employed the title art to convince Anne (the daughter of an idiotic, impecunious baronet) that she was too good to marry a sailor.

Persuasion throws Frederick (now rich) and Anne back together again after many years, gives them each a grasping, shallow suitor to endanger the prospects of a reconcilement, and then disperses the suitors and lets the lovers at each other at last.

It may be just because I am a guy, but I can't really draw a lot of useful life lessons, or even a whole lot of light entertainment, from that plot. It's too familiar, and in Persuasion, at any rate, too pat. There seems at least some chance that Edmund Bertram will never get together with Fanny Price, or that Emma Woodhouse will be blind to the fact that Mr. Knightley was born for her. In Persuasion, the two destined lovers home in on each other across the mild obstacles of the plot like tastefully-dressed guided missiles.

But despite its being nearly devoid of plot complication or philosophy, I admire Persuasion very much. Within its relatively brief confines, Austen succeeds beautifully in filling its various spandrels and other free spaces with real, and highly sympathetic, people. There are several acid-etched portraits of fools in Persuasion: the vicariously conceited Lady Russell, the breathtakingly vapid Sir Walter, and Sir Walter's pushy, devious heir-presumptive Mr. Elliott.

But the main characters are quite attractive, and so are several minor ones. My favorite scene in Persuasion comes when Anne is walking through the streets of Bath. She has recently heard a rumor that Frederick has broken up with the shallow Louisa Musgrove, who has in turn somewhat unaccountably agreed to marry his colleague Captain Benwick. Anne encounters Admiral Croft, her father's tenant (a tenant much better-off and more socially acceptable than her father, who persists in believing that the Admiral is a parvenu who will "find his own level" by association with "odd-looking men walking about here, who, I am told, are sailors" [235-36]).

Anne finds the Admiral gazing into "a printshop window" (239).

Here I am, you see, staring at a picture. I can never get by this shop without stopping. But what a thing here is, by way of a boat! Do look at it. Did you ever see the like? What queer fellows your fine old painters must be, to think that anybody would venture their lives in such a shapeless old cockleshell as that? And yet here are two gentlemen stuck up in it mightily at their ease, and looking about them at the rocks and mountains, as if they were not to be upset the next moment, which they certainly must be. (240)
Telling her he has something to relate, the Admiral starts to walk with Anne.
There, take my arm; that's right; I do not feel comfortable if I have not a woman there. . . . [A passer-by] stares to see anybody with me but my wife. She, poor soul, is tied by the leg. She has a blister on one of her heels, as large as a three-shilling piece. . . . How do you like Bath, Miss Elliot? It suits us very well. We are always meeting with some old friend or other; the streets full of them every morning; sure to have plenty of chat; and then we get away from them all, and shut ourselves in our lodgings, and draw in our chairs, and are snug as if we were at Kellynch, ay, or as we used to be even at North Yarmouth and Deal. We do not like our lodgings here the worse, I can tell you, for putting us in mind of those we first had at North Yarmouth. The wind blows through one of the cupboards just in the same way. (241)
This little passage is almost an object lesson in digression. The Admiral is woolgathering, the more so because he keeps deferring what he has to tell Anne (an important confirmation, as she hopes, of Louisa's betrothal to Benwick). But of course, the digression can be linked functionally to the themes of the novel. It is that rare Austenian glimpse into a happy and thriving marriage, which uncoincidentally began as the ménage of a struggling naval officer and his resolute wife. With effortless indirection, Austen proves that Lady Russell had been wrong all along. In time, a poor sailor could turn out to be the resident of Kellynch Hall, with a fortune far greater than that of its owners, the Elliotts. And he and his wife could turn out to be supremely happy in the bargain, happy in a way that allows the Admiral to convey to this young friend small, casual intimacies like the detail about the blister on Mrs. Croft's heel. This digression in Persuasion is when the reader knows for a certainty that everything's going to be all right.

Jane Austen's great gift was her ability to present the self-serving rationalizations of social creatures in matter-of-fact, self-consuming language: the famous Austen irony. When she turns unironic (as perhaps most evidently in the latter half of Mansfield Park, or in the slightly overlong double resolution of Sense & Sensibility), she can sometimes lose our attention. What sets Pride & Prejudice and Emma (I think deservingly) above her other works is their relentless, scathing catalogue of pretensions and self-immersions.

And what distinguishes Persuasion is its ability to trade irony for keen sympathy, as in the gorgeously economic character sketch of the Crofts, delivered largely in the Admiral's own monologue, without his wife even present. There is nothing of happily-ever magic here, or really anywhere in Austen. The Crofts have succeeded at marriage, but for all we know, the Darcys and Bingleys, the Ferrarses and Brandons, the Knightleys, the Tilneys, and the Bertrams are going to be as miserable as most of Austen's married couples. (Well, probably not the Bingleys.) What there is instead of sentimental magic is the aesthetic bliss of being able to convey an entire life in a page or two of rambling direct address. That's why I'd always rather be reading Jane Austen.

Austen, Jane. Persuasion. 1818. New York: Frank S. Holby, 1914.