The Short Version: The Elliot family, on the verge of financial ruin, decide to let their home – the great Kellynch Hall – to an admiral of some repute. But when Anne Elliot discovers that her former fiancé Captain Wentworth is related to the Hall’s new tenants, she wonders if their relationship could possibly be rekindled…
The Review: What a curious novel. The context surrounding it makes the experience of reading it far better: Austen’s last novel, still undergoing some revision at the time of her death. It feels so much like the “next step” we always talk about with writers, too. You know what I mean: that sense that an author is progressing, changing, ‘maturing’ into something else and they’ve made a sort of transitional novel during this transformative process. It’s a shame that Austen died when she did – it would’ve been fascinating to see what would’ve come next.
I’m using quotes but this feels like a more ‘mature’ novel – and not just because the main characters are all somewhat older than in Austen’s other novels. That’s a large reason, of course, but not the only one. In general, there’s just a bit less of the breathless hubbub of Sense & Sensibility and Pride & Prejudice. These characters are more considered, although that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re more refined – and as a result, the book moves at a somewhat more stately pace despite its short length.
There’s something almost Dickensian about the opening section of the novel, although I suppose it’d be more chronologically accurate to say that Dickens’ work is somewhat Austenian. As we’re introduced to the characters – the Elliot family in particular – it is unclear who, exactly, is going to be the main character. In one of Austen’s earlier novels, it might well’ve been brassy older sister Elizabeth or the wild (relative term) younger sister Mary. We get a fascinating description of Sir Walter and then it’s only a short ways into the novel that we realize: it’s Anne who is our main character, who has been described to us as plain, ordinary, not un-handsome but also not exactly beautiful either. AND she’s 27 in the present tense action of the novel – far older than the usual late teens/early twenties of Austen’s other heroines.
As a result, we get a rather fascinating look at the realities of being older and going through the courtship ritual(s) – and there’s something to be said for Anne ‘finding’ love at such a ‘late’ age. But because Austen is writing older characters, they’re also just generally more… well, mature. Without quotes. They’re not necessarily more considerate (and the biting tone Austen takes regarding Sir Walter’s frivolity and loose pursestrings shows that she might’ve become something of a social critic on matters of more than just the heart) but they’re able to think about things a bit more rationally. Or at least Anne is – and I suppose that’s what sets this book apart from the others.
That said, it stands apart somewhat to its detriment. Going from Northanger Abbey to this book is sort of a let-down, if I’m being honest. The more reserved tone reminded me a bit of why I sometimes used to drift when attempting to read P&P: it can get boring. But I rather longed for the incessant balls and gossip of those earlier novels by about the midpoint of Persuasion. The more stately character of the novel made it – dare I say – a little duller, too. I didn’t find it bad but I just found it a bit difficult to stay involved in. Every time I picked it up after having put the book down, I would have to spend a few pages getting myself back in the mood… but with diminishing returns. In the end, I simply shrugged.
Rating: 3 out of 5. Just because the novel marks what might’ve been a turning point for our author does not necessarily mean it was a terribly enjoyable novel. I do not think I will look back and remember the Elliots terribly well – except for the grace with which Austen writes her older main characters. Perhaps a longer period of revision might’ve lent the book more even tone and pace and form, but perhaps not. It doesn’t matter though – it was, as I say, certainly not a bad novel. Just, for me, rather okay.