Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Persuasion, or, How to Converse with your Ex

I am slowly reading Jane Austen's Persuasion in the evenings that I have more than ten minutes of quiet time – so I am reading very slowly. But it is nice to reread something I once rushed; to be able to page through Austen's prose at leisure is marvellous.

Had I been reading hastily, I would have missed this part at the outset of chapter eight, and it's wonderfully sad and thought-provoking.

(Captain Wentworth, spurned suitor of Anne Elliot, has returned rich and successful after eight years at sea... and the two are bound to move in the same circles. The awkwardness of the initial meeting has passed, but how will they respond to one another now? They're both still single, but no one's willing to simply start over...)

They had no conversation together, no intercourse but what the commonest civility required. Once so much to each other! Now nothing! There had been a time, when of all the large party now filling the drawing room at Uppercross, they would have found it most difficult to cease to speak to one another. With the exception, perhaps, of Admiral and Mrs. Croft, who seemed particularly attached and happy (Anne could allow no other exception even among the married couples) there could have been no two hearts so open, no tastes so similar, no feelings so in unison, no countenances so beloved. Now they were strangers; nay, worse than strangers, for they could never become acquainted. It was a perpetual estrangement.

Austen was fond of leaning into the story from the female's point of view, and Persuasion is no exception. Anne, still at home and subject to the whims and whines of her family, is deeply embarrassed that no one can forget how she rejected the Captain...particularly as it was those she considered close to her that persuaded her to do so. We've heard very little of Wentworth's take this early in the novel. Anne has put off her first reunion with the Captain as long as she is able, but now that they've seen each other again – and she still “heard the same voice, and discerned the same mind.” He's grown more sophisticated, but this makes their acquaintance even harder to bear.

Now we see Anne obsessing over how they will be viewed by others in their close-knit society. She is already comparing what she remembers of her relationship with Captain Wentworth, to those of the couples around her. With the rarity of platonic relationships between men and women, it's no wonder she sees only two possibilities: that they will remain estranged but continue to attend the same social events, or that they will again find themselves questioning the possibility of marriage. As Anne cannot see the latter happening, she settles for the former. It would certainly be settling... except that Anne is unable to let go of what she saw in him all those years ago, because he is now everything he was and more—and it's already testing her grip on convention.

To be perpetually estranged! How hopeless. I can just imagine Anne on one side of the drawing room, seeing “her” Captain interact with others in his charming way, and being unable to contribute to the conversations as she used to. To feel bound to distance herself from him, because she was the one who did the rejecting... To be sure, perpetual estrangement would be far less bearable than open disdain. To others who witness their interactions, their conversation would seem quite acceptable – but to Anne, who remembers what they once were to each other and how their discourse was far more than the polite and measured discussions held by many of their acquaintances! It would be heartbreaking to acknowledge, even privately, that she was no longer someone whom he could share his thoughts with. To have their estrangement so publicly displayed, without comment, without any sympathy or even scorn, must be tearing Anne's confidence to pieces.

I wonder what might persuade her to forgive herself for rejecting the Captain? Moreover, to forgive herself for following the urgings of her friends and family regarding her dismissal of his suit, thus denying her own feelings?

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