My Favourite Novel:Persuasion

Book of a Lifetime, The Independent (2005)

I remember an exchange with Iris Murdoch and John Bayley at a lunch party given by their Oxford neighbours. Eyes lit up when talk turned to which was a favourite amongst Jane Austen’s novels, and which hero one would choose for oneself. I was ridiculed for fancying Mr Darcy. They all thought this absurdly immature. For Iris Murdoch, Mr Knightley was the one – an older hero alert to others - and she intimated that in her eyes John Bayley was like him.

And the favourite heroine? "Anne Elliot", I said promptly, hoping this time to get it right - yet aware a South African never really would.

Iris Murdoch leant across the table for emphasis. "I should have chosen Fanny Price", she said with a shade of reproach. I knew what she meant: it’s a profounder moral test to prefer the paragon of Mansfield Park – Fanny who is always right – to Anne in Persuasion who, as the novel opens, has made a grave mistake. Eight years earlier, at nineteen, she had succumbed to persuasion and given up Captain Wentworth because he had "only himself to recommend him": no money, no connections. To her snobbish family, Wentworth was "nobody". Then, as the years passed, and he distinguished himself as a naval officer during the Napoleonic wars, Anne finds that "she had been forced into prudence in her youth; she learnt romance as she grew older". A touch after years of separation – Wentworth’s hand under her elbow as, silently, he presses her to rest in his sister’s gig - jolts her emotions together with her senses, for Wentworth alone has seen her unvoiced need.

As a person who has given full weight to economic necessity, Anne discovers a greater necessity. For her to renew herself as an effective character, someone from the public sphere must see the promise of her latent nature. The Bible uses the word "know" for sexual union; all the knowing in Jane Austen gives the novels an extraordinary charge, particularly in Persuasion where knowing has been interrupted and stopped. Later, John Stuart Mill defines the difficulty of knowing a woman who is worth knowing. A man must be of a character "so well adapted to hers, that he can either read her mind by sympathetic intuition, or has nothing in himself which makes her shy of disclosing it. Hardly anything… can be more rare than this conjunction."

Anne, like Fanny Price, is put-upon, and drained of agency as she mopes on a dripping verandah. What appear poor creatures are pitted against brightly wilful women who seem prime candidates for love. But the latter prove shallow. Anne, with her attentive compassion, counteracts a ruling class in decline, epitomised by her self-regarding father in mirror-filled rooms. There are other flawed fathers: Mr Bennet withdrawn in his study; overbearing Sir Thomas Bertram whose daughters become creatures of the outward codes; and Emma’s father, the endearingly helpless baby – protected and cosseted by his daughter.

Jane Austen is often co-opted for conservatism, but her novels question traditional authority and female artifice. Wentworth thinks women too fragile to go to sea. His sister, wife to an admiral, contradicts false gallantry – she has never felt so well as on board ship. Wentworth’s friend thinks women’s feelings are fickle, since books say so. Anne will not have it: "The pen has been in men’s hands", she points out. "I will not allow books to prove any thing." Whilst Anne claims that "women love longest when hope is gone", Wentworth pens his renewed proposal. "You pierce my soul", he writes. Here is the Austen test: to pierce character. Virginia Woolf once remarked that it’s hard to catch Jane Austen in the act of greatness. Here, in Persuasion, she shows her hand as she picks up the pen to tell us who we are and what we want.