I was reminded today, in a discussion about our favourite Austen heroes, that I hadn’t added Persuasion to my round up of love stories for Valentines Day. How could I have forgotten the love story that speaks to anyone who has ever loved and lost? For me, this is the most relatable Austen love story, and becomes ever more so the older I get.
As we get older our preferences for heroes, heroines and books can change. My idea of a good love story has definitely altered. As a teenager I loved Wuthering Heights and Cathy and Heathcliff seemed like the ultimate lovers in literature. They were young, star-crossed and passionate. In fact, it was these memories of romance that made me pick the novel up again, several years later. I was horrified I ever thought this was love. What Cathy and Heathcliff have is obsessional and they are both abusive. Heathcliff also commits domestic violence and hangs the Linton’s dog! I remember once writing an essay arguing for Cathy’s character over Jane Eyre. I wouldn’t argue the same now. I thought that Jane was a really lame character for walking away from Rochester. Now I know how powerful that decision is for Jane. It gives her the power in the relationship and also means she keeps her principles.
However much I love Jane. It’s Austen’s quietest heroine, Anne Elliot, who really speaks to my soul. I mentioned Precious Bane in my Valentines blog and I guess there are some similarities with Anne. They are both quiet and unassuming. They both have low self-confidence and seem to keep in the background. Both have lost a parent, Prue has lost her father and Anne has lost her mother. They may seem meek, but both have a resolve in them that’s admirable. Anne is so thwarted in life, she possibly once had the sparkle of Emma or the outspokenness of Lizzie Bennett, now she keeps everything within. We glimpse her intelligence and kindness only because we can hear her inner monologue.
Outwardly, she is very easy to overlook and definitely not the obvious Austen heroine. She’s not young, beautiful or spirited. When we meet her she is established as a spinster and thought very unlikely to marry. She is something of a joke to her dreadful family and even someone to be pitied. For a father who cares more about money and how he appears to society, an unmarried daughter is a burden. Far better to farm her out to distant relatives and family friends to reduce costs. In truth she is kind, gentle and thoughtful. She is loyal to friends, even where they find themselves in reduced circumstances. She has so many loveable qualities but doesn’t see them as eligible.
Of course, what her family and friends don’t often acknowledge is that Anne had a chance to marry Wentworth, a man she loved and who loved her in return. She was schooled to refuse his proposal because he wasn’t eligible enough and Wentworth left to join the Navy. Now, in a twist of fate, his sister is brought into Anne’s sphere of acquaintances and by association the newly promoted Captain Wentworth. It’s in this new acquaintance that I most feel like Anne, as would any woman who has ever felt too old, too fat or too ordinary. It never crosses her mind that Wentworth might still have feelings for her. She’s too used to being overlooked and underestimated. At one point, she assumes his attachment to Louisa, a young and beautiful girl in their circle. Everything Wentworth does for Anne, she assumes to be in deference to her age and spinster status.
Whether I’m reading the novel again or watching an adaptation on television I physically feel the tension building. Austen does this perfectly by creating a world where two characters should be together but are not. They revolve around one another, silenced by etiquette and decorum, but with a burning passion. This culminates in a scene at a pub, where both characters are surrounded by people, yet Wentworth’s passion finally finds voice in a letter he writes and leaves at the table for Anne. For me, this is the most romantic letter in fiction.
‘you pierce my soul. I am half agony, half hope. Tell me that I am not too late, that such precious feelings are gone forever. I offer myself to you with a heart even more your own than when you broke it eight and a half years ago’.
The beauty of the scene is that Wentworth is revealing his inner soul, while maintaining a public face. Anne is so repressed, that it takes this open declaration to remind her of all those young, passionate and unbridled feelings she had eight years before. It breaks through to her and reminds her that, not only did she once had feelings, she acted upon them. It contrasts so sharply with the woman she has become, overriding her own needs in order to do her best for others. As readers we hope she will overcome the outer reserve and feel again. To meet Wentworth with all the love she too felt eight years before. However, it isn’t just about the romance, but about a woman acknowledging her own feelings, and knowing they are valid. She gives herself the permission to act upon them and seize a life of happiness, she missed out on before. I always imagine Anne living a life of adventure on the high seas as a Captain’s wife. A life that her family could only imagine.