Reader Redux: Read “Persuasion” on Your Deathbed

If I could go back in time, I would return to any moment before I read Jane Austen’s “Persuasion.” Then, I’d have the entire novel ahead of me, patiently waiting just like central character Anne Elliot herself. If Anne could wait for her Captain Wentworth forever, “Persuasion” should wait for me forever. I’d want to save the pleasures of this particular Austen novel for the last moments of my life, rather than consuming it ravenously as I did at age 13.

“Persuasion” was the last novel Austen wrote and was published after her death in 1817. It’s a painful tale of uncertain love; when Anne is young, she’s persuaded by her vain father and snobby Lady Russell to deny Captain Wentworth’s marriage proposal. Predictably—because this is early 19th-century England—Wentworth takes to the seas to drown his sorrows in the Navy. Eight years later Anne finds herself, at the ungodly age of 27, alone after having refused to fall in love with anyone else. Naturally, in the context of Jane Austen’s world, you’d expect the ending of “Persuasion” to be a second—and this time accepted—proposal from Wentworth, and that conclusion does indeed come. However, the novel is so submerged in Anne’s self-deprecating mind that it’s possible to forget the book is ultimately a Jane Austen creation. It is so submerged in Anne’s voice, which is both serious and eager that the tone of the novel strays noticeably from Austen’s other, more conversational novels. That is what separates “Persuasion” from from others such as “Emma” or “Pride and Prejudice.” This particular Austen is quieter, and it unravels at a patient, almost leisurely pace.

The only place to read “Persuasion” is in a beanbag chair because sinking into an armchair is not quite as satisfying as the undulating, expansive nature of the beanbag. Submerged in the indented chair and in Anne Elliot’s mind, you forget that there’s a happy ending after all the insufferable evenings spent in parlor rooms. Austen is a master of discomforting her characters; her novels are a precursor to the visceral social awkwardness in the film “Bridesmaids.” Austen has a talent for seizing an uncomfortable situation, placing just the right number of characters in the room, and watching her protagonists squirm like worms on the sidewalk.  It’s the penetrating particularity of the phrases Austen chooses that cause us to sink deeper into the beanbag, confessions like “You pierce my soul” and “I am half agony, and half hope” and the nearly unspeakably true, “When pain is over, the remembrance of it often becomes a pleasure.” Austen digs underneath our sense of decency, mucking up social formalities 200 years before my unbelievably awkward self ever entered the scene.

Austen’s ability to articulate exactly the workings of Anne’s self-doubt is incredible; the text is not even written in the first person, and yet it is undoubtedly written from her perspective alone. In reading “Persuasion,” I felt a comforting interiority I had not sensed as much in her other novels. And Austen goes farther; she draws out the Anne’s uncertainty until the penultimate chapter. Even then, it is only an accidentally overheard conversation that prompts Wentworth to confess his steadfast love.

I have never experienced so much physical relief and confusing joy while reading any other novel. I believe I sank below the outer edges of my beanbag chair when I read Wentworth’s confession; my feet were likely sticking above my head by the end of it all. I experienced many of the same emotions that Anne herself probably battled with after reading Wentworth’s letter. “I can listen no longer in silence. I must speak to you by such means as are within my reach.” I was irrationally surprised, as if all the time I’d spent in the beanbag chair was actually time spent in Somersetshire and Bath; it had felt like eight years of waiting, and finally Anne and I were being rewarded by this love letter. I felt like a martyr.

So here is my logical proposition: wait until you are weeks from the end of your life, when you are wrinkled and your bones are more brittle than the pages of “Persuasion.” Only then should you pick up Austen’s last, and in my opinion, greatest novel. Then, having literally waited all of your life for this moment, when Chapter 23 comes around and Anne happens upon the letter, the carefully concocted feeling of liberation will be limitless.

—Staff writer Virginia R. Marshall can be reached at virginiarosemarshall@college.harvard.edu.

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