When one feels that one’s support of Jane Austen paraliterature is a hopeless business as the genre has become a quagmire of revolting twaddle written by people who think Jane Austen was a sweet little spinster penning pretty romances, it is a real relief to be reminded why we still bother. There are some gems to be found in the sludge, Gentle Readers, and Amanda Grange’s previous two books, (Mr.) Darcy’s Diary and Mr. Knightley’s Diary, are among them. We are pleased to relate that her latest offering, Captain Wentworth’s Diary, does not disappoint.
The point of these hero’s point of view tales is to present backstory, to show the parallel to the heroine’s journey. In this retelling of Persuasion we are given a real treat: the whole story of the summer of the Year Six, when Anne Elliot and Frederick Wentworth fell in love. Young Wentworth is as full of “intelligence, spirit, and brilliancy” as Jane Austen described him; fresh from his heroics at St. Domingo, he rolls into Somerset ready to dance and flirt with every pretty girl. The last thing he expects is to fall in love–especially not with the quiet Anne; and when he does, and offers for her, and is accepted, the very last thing he expects is for her to break their engagement. He leaves Somerset, injured and angry, to make his fortune. Eight years later, Napoleon has been confined on Elba, and the Royal Navy comes home; and of all the great houses in England to lease, his brother-in-law chooses Kellynch, the scene of that mortifying romance. Wentworth arrives, fresh from the painful scene of helping his friend Benwick cope with his fiancee’s death, still resentful at his own rejection, and convinced that Anne Elliot’s power with him was gone forever. The stage is set, and the game is on.
When we read Persuasion, customarily we become angry on Anne’s behalf when Wentworth first appears; angry at his rudeness, at saying to the pretty young Musgrove girls that Anne was so altered he would not have known her. He had to know it would be repeated to her; he had to know how those words could hurt; how could a man once so in love say such a thing? He ought not, he does not! But Ms. Grange is gentle with her hero; we are shown his shock at first seeing Anne, beaten down by eight years of disappointment and regret, and mistaking her for a nursery-maid; at being so distracted by this change, and the emotions it engenders in himself, that he thoughtlessly utters the hurtful words. Instead of harboring our own resentment (or yelling salty naval expletives aloud, as is our custom), we found ourself, much to our astonishment, in sympathy with him.
Another interesting device is a paralleling of Anne and Wentworth’s stories. For instance, we know of Anne’s pain when Mrs. Croft talks of her brother being married; Anne thinks she means Frederick, when she means the eldest brother, Edward. In this story, the Crofts tell Wentworth that Miss Elliot is still very handsome, and her sister is married to Charles Musgrove. Wentworth, knowing the propriety of such a match for Anne, assumes she is Mrs. Charles rather than Mary, and experiences the same pain and same relief as Anne when he discovers his mistake.
The Year Six episode takes the first third of the novel, so some elements of the main story were, in our opinion, a bit more rushed than we would like; but we are a devoted Persuasionite and can never get enough of these characters. (We are “those Austen people” that Rupert Penry-Jones referred to, and he can *quarterdeck expletive* if he doesn’t like it.) There certainly is satisfaction to be had: in following Wentworth’s change of heart as he acknowledges his true feelings; his self-reproach as he realizes his thoughtless flirtation with Louisa Musgrove could have serious consequences; his jealousy of Mr. Elliot and fear that he is too late to win Anne at last; thoughts streaming in bursts and gasps of emotion as he listens to a conversation and writes a letter; and a lovely, long talk on a walk from the White Hart to Camden-place, “spirits dancing in private rapture.” Like the other books in Ms. Grange’s series, scrupulous attention is paid to the original, even while interpreting what is not explicitly shown, and some well-known scenes are fleshed out while others are condensed, nicely complementing the original.
Anne Elliot is Jane Austen’s most mature heroine, and unlike her sister heroines has experienced her journey of self-knowledge prior to the opening of the novel. It is Wentworth who has the real journey in Persuasion, and in Captain Wentworth’s Diary we take that journey with him, from brash young officer to a mature man, shaped by experience and loss but still able to seize an opportunity when he can listen no longer in silence, and although we know the ending, we cheer when hope returns.