In defense of Persuasion


Cross-posted to This Delightful Habit of Journaling

So I guess it’s kind of obvious that I’m burned out on Austen blogging, but that doesn’t mean I’m not paying attention to what’s going on in Janeworld. I suppose I’ve just been waiting for something to bring me out of my funk. So I guess I should thank Adelle Waldman for her article in Slate, as it aroused my ire sufficiently to get me blogging again; but really it just made me cranky, and made me get the Cluebat of Janeite Righteousness out of hibernation.

Why do so many of Jane Austen’s smartest readers consider her weakest novel to be her best? Persuasion, the story of kind, helpful Anne Elliot—who made a mistake years ago and is still suffering for it when the book opens—is didactic and full of crude, overdrawn characterizations.


*hefts Cluebat*

Okay, this is the opening paragraph. I’ll give her some slack.

*caresses Cluebat lovingly*

It is also the least funny of Austen’s books.

Oh, really? But wait, she’s read it several times. No one else has, of course. No one could possibly pull several funny quotes out of her butt. Could they? 

Vanity was the beginning and the end of Sir Walter Elliot’s character; vanity of person and of situation. He had been remarkably handsome in his youth; and, at fifty-four, was still a very fine man. Few women could think more of their personal appearance than he did, nor could the valet of any new made lord be more delighted with the place he held in society. He considered the blessing of beauty as inferior only to the blessing of a baronetcy; and the Sir Walter Elliot, who united these gifts, was the constant object of his warmest respect and devotion.

This is the sixth paragraph of the book. The sixth paragraph. A withering characterization that neatly disposes of Sir Walter Elliot. The last clause in particular is brilliant and funny. But wait! There’s more!

Sir Walter, without hesitation, declared the Admiral to be the best-looking sailor he had ever met with, and went so far as to say, that if his own man might have had the arranging of his hair, he should not be ashamed of being seen with him any where; and the Admiral, with sympathetic cordiality, observed to his wife as they drove back through the park, “I thought we should soon come to a deal, my dear, in spite of what they told us at Taunton. The Baronet will never set the Thames on fire, but there seems to be no harm in him.” reciprocal compliments, which would have been esteemed about equal.

This one is a particular favorite, especially as it breaks up the tension of one of the very few moments of melodrama in Jane Austen’s novels:

By this time the report of the accident had spread among the workmen and boatmen about the Cobb, and many were collected near them, to be useful if wanted, at any rate, to enjoy the sight of a dead young lady, nay, two dead young ladies, for it proved twice as fine as the first report.

There is more humor, but that will do for now. While Persuasion is hardly a laff-riot, it certainly has humor. Even if one wanted to claim it is the least funny of Austen’s novels–surely a subjective judgment in any event, though Ms. Waldman seems to assert it as a fact–it is not unfunny. I realize that Ms. Waldman does not say it is unfunny, but I think a reader can be forgiven for reading her assertion that it is the “least funny” and inferring that it is unfunny; and that would be a shame. On to the rest of the article.

The book’s good characters are even worse: boring, smug and, after a while, downright insufferable.

One hopes she is not referring to Anne Elliot. While she is without doubt one of Austen’s good heroines, Anne has many moments that make her human and sympathetic. She has a gentle sense of humor that is easily and often aroused, whether by the Crofts’ method of gig-driving, Louisa Musgrove’s paeans to the Navy, or even by herself, when she switches seats at the concert to get closer to Captain Wentworth, and cannot help laughing about it.

I’m not inclined to specifically spork-fisk this entire article, partly because some of it is quite good; just not the parts about Persuasion. While the authoress is certainly entitled to not like the novel, she seems to extrapolate this dislike to fact.

And yet many people whose taste is generally excellent—including, for instance, Slate’s own Ron Rosenbaum and the literary critics William Deresiewicz and Harold Bloom—consider Persuasion Austen’s best book.

There was nothing in the linked article by the Slate writer that said he considers Persuasion to be Austen’s best book; just his favorite. They are not the same thing. Maybe he does think it the best, but I can’t tell from that piece. I don’t really know enough about the other authors’ writing to know what they say about the novels; but I wonder if Ms. Waldman has mistaken the authors’ favorite novels for the novel they consider the best?

Persuasion is my favorite Austen novel, and I will defend it as such. I think (in other words, it’s my opinion) that Emma is her best novel; but Persuasion remains my favorite. I can make that separation. I think Emma is brilliant and funny, and I am entirely sympathetic to anyone who considers it her favorite Austen, but I will never write about Emma with the passion about which I write about Persuasion, because I simply don’t love it as much.

I have written many times that I was a late-blooming Janeite, not reading her books until I was in my 20s. I read Emma, and liked it very much indeed; a year or so later, I read Pride and Prejudice, and was excessively diverted; and then I read Persuasion. I very clearly remember the experience of reading it. As I read, I was not convinced that (do I need spoiler alerts here?) Anne and Wentworth would end up together. It seemed to me that things were heading toward Wentworth marrying Louisa Musgrove–regretfully–and Anne consoling herself with Captain Benwick.

I did not yet know Austen well enough to know she knew better. I did not know she was going to lay the whammy on me. And boy, did she. I read of Wentworth showing up in Bath, and his jealousy of Mr. Elliot, with growing hope–not unlike Anne’s; I read her passionate defense of woman’s love, and Wentworth’s discomfort with overhearing it–but I still wasn’t sure that it was going to happen.

And then Jane laid the whammy on me, big-time. I got to The Letter. It’s worth reproducing in whole here.

“I can listen no longer in silence. I must speak to you by such means as are within my reach. You pierce my soul. I am half agony, half hope. Tell me not that I am too late, that such precious feelings are gone for ever. I offer myself to you again with a heart even more your own than when you almost broke it, eight years and a half ago. Dare not say that man forgets sooner than woman, that his love has an earlier death. I have loved none but you. Unjust I may have been, weak and resentful I have been, but never inconstant. You alone have brought me to Bath. For you alone, I think and plan. Have you not seen this? Can you fail to have understood my wishes? I had not waited even these ten days, could I have read your feelings, as I think you must have penetrated mine. I can hardly write. I am every instant hearing something which overpowers me. You sink your voice, but I can distinguish the tones of that voice when they would be lost on others. Too good, too excellent creature! You do us justice, indeed. You do believe that there is true attachment and constancy among men. Believe it to be most fervent, most undeviating, in

F. W.

“I must go, uncertain of my fate; but I shall return hither, or follow your party, as soon as possible. A word, a look, will be enough to decide whether I enter your father’s house this evening or never.”

Such a letter was not to be soon recovered from.

No, it wasn’t. My heart was pounding. I had goosebumps. I was in tears. I was pretty sure this was the greatest piece of writing I had ever read. It was everything. In the context of this story–this story that had caught me and absorbed me–it was everything.

Before reading The Letter (because we Janeites need call it nothing more specific; it is The Letter), I had been a casual Jane Austen reader, who enjoyed her books; but after reading it, I was a fan for life. In my view, that kind of passion is what reading is all about. Clinical discussions and “rankings” of the novels are all very well, and recognizing technical greatness is an interesting intellectual exercise, but give me the big whammy. Nobody does it better than Jane.

*puts down Cluebat* It really wasn’t needed here.

19 thoughts on “In defense of Persuasion

  1. Gill

    My reaction to the letter was exactly the same. You pierce my soul. What a line. Gobsmackingly beautiful. To receive such a letter….sigh……


  2. helenajustina

    The distinction you make between the book which is your favourite and the one which you consider to be the best is so important, not only for Jane Austen.

    It reminds me of the college professor in the book I’m reading now (Come Unto These Yellow Sands by Josh Lanyon) who is teaching his students in Literary Analysis the difference between liking a work and its having literary merit. He says something like: The discovery that you like XX? that’s great. We’ll keep it in mind for Christmas. But to get a A on a paper, you’re going to have to convince me that you have a good reason for liking XX. I want to see those opinions supported by evidence. I want you to prove to me that you’ve considered elements like theme, setting, characterisation…

    It is possible to see that a work has literary merit but not to like it. For me, that’s the case with Emma. I know it’s a great book in the literary sense. But I don’t like it, and don’t re-read it.

    Persuasion is my favourite too! I haven’t decided on my opinion as to which is the best Jane Austen…


    • Yeah–I feel like for someone who has “read the novels SEVERAL TIMES! SEVERAL TIMES!” she doesn’t really love them. Maybe that’s the problem–if you’re trained to separate your love for a book from your recognition of its literary merit (as in the professor in your example) that you don’t always recognize the signs of book-love in others? And it’s interesting how Jane Austen tends to inspire that love in otherwise dispassionate literary scholars and critics. 🙂


  3. No humor in Persuasion? How about this passage? Miss Austen’s velvet-covered hammer pounding on the person of Mrs. Musgrove. What a visual sight gag!

    “….They were actually on the same sofa, for Mrs. Musgrove had most readily made room for him: they were divided only by Mrs. Musgrove. It was no insignificant barrier, indeed. Mrs. Musgrove was of a comfortable, substantial size, infinitely more fitted by nature to express good cheer and good humour, than tenderness and sentiment; and while the agitations of Anne’s slender form, and pensive face, may be considered as very completely screened, Captain Wentworth should be allowed some credit for the self-command with which he attended to her large fat sighings over the destiny of a son, whom alive nobody had cared for…..”


  4. While I am always delighted by any event that results in your dusting off the Cluebat of Janeite Rightousness, I have to defend Ms. Waldman a little. To call something the “least funny” of Jane Austen’s works is perhaps like talking about the relative shortness of giants. Persuasion is somber in places, shockingly cruel in others (I am thinking in particular of that part Jeffery cites above, where the narrator makes fun of Mrs. Musgrove’s daring to be both sad and fat. Although that is, true, funny too) and even verges as close at times as Jane Austen ever gets to sentimentality. Is it funny? Yes. As funny as the others? No. But still funny.

    I sometimes think I love Persuasion *because* of its imperfections, because I imagine I can see the places where the seams show a little and where, if she had lived longer, she would have gone back to revise. No seams ever show in Emma; from a technical and artistic viewpoint it is the greater achievement for that reason, but perhaps also why it inspires admiration more than affection.


    • Right–Jane never had the opportunity to tweak and work on Persuasion. She had nearly 20 years to tweak and rework S&S and P&P. That she managed to make P so brilliant and emotional and beautiful and, yes, funny, is pretty amazing in itself. And the fact that she so substantially rewrote the ending–and made it way better–means that even though she was quite ill, her powers had not abandoned her. The unfinished ms. of Sanditon proves it further IMO–I still think Sanditon would have been a work of real brilliance had she time to finish it.


  5. Thank you for writing this post. You expressed my feelings about that article exactly. While PERSUASION may not have been her best novel, it is far from weak. The fact that it is also my personal favorite is neither here nor there (except to me!).


  6. Sandra

    Your thoughts on Ms. Waldman’s evaluation of Northanger Abbey? (ducks to avoid on-deck circle practice swings)


  7. Woah. I had not seen this Slate piece before. What the heck is she talking about?! Thank you for your defense. I may have to do a rebuttal as well, and will certainly share your post with my readers. That is my favorite Austen novel! It is different, but in a really outstanding way. I don’t often say this of criticism, but how dare she be so flippant. I appreciate your copy of The Letter in its entirety, and also your reaction “Before reading The Letter (because we Janeites need call it nothing more specific; it is The Letter), I had been a casual Jane Austen reader, who enjoyed her books; but after reading it, I was a fan for life.” Me too. Internet high five.


  8. Ah, spring has sprung, the Phillies are back on the field, and the Editrix has brought out the Cluebat in a good cause (even though she eventually put it down again). Loud huzzahs!


  9. Completely agree about the author of that article being clueless. So she doesn’t care for PERSUASION, so what? Everyone is entitled to an opinion. In truth, to compare PERSUASION to Jane’s other works is mostly unfair as she was rather sick while she penned it and parts of it were in draft form with certain subplots dropped because it did not have the benefit of editing before she died and was published “as-is” after her death. Imagine what it would have been if she’d been in full health and had been edited properly. I love, love PERSUASION and especially The Letter (as you know) and think that Austen’s prose was never more beautiful than in most parts of that novel.

    She seems to equate funny with better book. Why? Who cares if it’s not as funny as the others (to be honest, I find it a lot funnier than Mansfield Park, which I consider quite dull).

    While I have not read this woman’s entire article, I find her comments about PERSUASION rather shallow and idiotic. But hey, I’m a bit biased. 🙂

    SO glad you are blogging again, Mags.


  10. I’m with you–no humor??!?!? What about the drawing room scene where they’re all laying their problems on poor Anne? Mary lamenting that her kids come home stuffed with cake and Grandma Musgrove lamenting that the only way to keep Mary’s brats in order is to stuff ’em with more cake than is good for them. Hilarious–and timely. That could be happening at any family gathering today, which makes Austen’s skill all the more awe-inspiring.


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