I don’t think I’ll ever tire of reading about second chances. I finished rereading Persuasion, and I’ve been thinking about the fact that in addition to giving her heroine a second chance at happiness, Jane Austen gave herself a second chance at writing the ending of the novel. Apparently dissatisfied with her draft of the final chapters (which you can read here, if you haven’t come across them before), she wrote a new version, which includes the famous debate between Anne Elliot and Captain Harville over whether men or women are more constant in their devotion to the one they love.
Near the end of their conversation, Harville says, “I do not think I ever opened a book in my life which had not something to say upon woman’s inconstancy. Songs and proverbs, all talk of women’s fickleness. But perhaps you will say, these were all written by men.”
And Anne replies, “Perhaps I shall. Yes, yes, if you please, no references to examples in books. Men have had every advantage of us in telling their own story. Education has been theirs in so much higher a degree; the pen has been in their hands. I will not allow books to prove anything.”
The revised chapters also include The Letter, which has made many a reader swoon. “You pierce my soul. I am half agony, half hope. Tell me not that I am too late, that such precious feelings are gone forever….”
Anne gets a second season of youth and beauty, as well as a second chance at happiness. I love reading about the way her “bloom” returns, during her visit to the seaside at Lyme:
“She was looking remarkably well; her very regular, very pretty features, having the bloom and freshness of youth restored by the fine wind which had been blowing on her complexion, and by the animation of eye which it had also produced.”
I always enjoy finding references to Jane Austen’s novels in contemporary fiction. I’d love to hear about examples you’ve found in your own reading, if you’d like to share. A few years ago, I wrote about finding Elinor and Marianne Dashwood in Emma Straub’s Modern Lovers, Jeanne Birdsall’s The Penderwicks on Gardam Street, and Gail Honeyman’s Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine (in a blog post entitled “Elinor and Marianne”).
My guess would be that Pride and Prejudice and its characters turn up in contemporary novels more often than the other Austen novels do. A character inspired by Lady Catherine de Bourgh, for example, appears in Jennifer Robson’s 2015 novel After the War is Over, which is set in England in 1919. The heroine, Charlotte Brown, a former governess and nurse, receives an unexpected call from the imperious Lady Cumberland, who says her son has broken his engagement because of “some strange sort of attachment” to Charlotte. “He’s always had an affinity for those who are beneath him,” she claims.
When Charlotte asks if Lady Cumberland intends to “warn [her] off, à la Lady Catherine de Bourgh,” Lady Cumberland says she doesn’t know anyone by that name. Charlotte considers explaining the reference to Pride and Prejudice, but decides not to, because “Lady Cumberland had never approved of novels, and particularly not ones written by women.” Robson’s heroine responds to Lady Cumberland’s accusations with the same lively spirit as Elizabeth Bennet.
It’s a wonderful scene, with echoes of Jane Austen—Lady Cumberland calls Charlotte an “Insolent girl,” just as Lady Catherine calls Elizabeth an “Obstinate, headstrong girl”—and yet by the end, the relationship between the two women in Robson’s novel has changed significantly, as Lady Cumberland finds herself asking Charlotte for help. Her son has returned from the Great War a broken man, both physically and psychologically, and she realizes that Charlotte’s training and experience at the Special Neurological Hospital for Officers in Kensington might help him recover. Robson draws on Pride and Prejudice for inspiration, and creates something entirely new.
Charlotte Brown, like so many of us, turns to Jane Austen to help her understand her own life, whether she’s interpreting character or reading fiction in a time of crisis. When she and the other women at her boarding house gather in the sitting room for safety during a riot, Charlotte tries to persuade herself that she can learn to be happy and strong on her own, that she will survive the challenges that lie ahead of her. The novel she picks up to read to her friends is “a much-loved copy of Persuasion.” “Shall I read to you all?” she asks. “I think I have just the book for the occasion.”
After I finished rereading Persuasion, I went back to reread the guest post my friend Maggie Arnold wrote for the blog series I hosted in 2018, in honour of the 200th anniversary of the publication of Northanger Abbey and Persuasion.
Maggie writes that when Anne and Captain Wentworth first fell in love, “he was a young naval officer who had not yet proved himself—his early promise and energetic temperament were as yet untried.” And “Anne herself was inexperienced, a weakness which only time could correct, as she comes to know more people and to witness their failures and successes.” Eventually, she “can clearly see the path of her desire as the life to which she can commit herself, now with the maturity of ‘a collected mind.’ She knows her own worth, and others acknowledge it, too.”
I think Maggie’s right that this process is central to the novel. The romance is important, but so is the education of the heroine, through which she “comes to know her place in the world.” If you’d like to read more, you can find Maggie’s guest post here: “What Women Most Desire: Anne Elliot’s Self-discovery.”
And here’s the link to Rereading Persuasion, Part 1, if you missed it.
Next week, let’s talk more about Pride and Prejudice, shall we? Saturday, January 28, 2023 marks 210 years since the day it was first published.
I found some photos from my visit to Lyme with my cousin Honor, about twenty years ago. During the two years that I was a postdoctoral fellow in England, she very kindly took me to many literary sites, including Milton’s Cottage, William Morris’s Kelmscott Manor, Samuel Johnson’s Birthplace Museum in Lichfield, and many more. We had such a wonderful time that day in Lyme—and I’d love to visit again. (Also—I loved that red coat. Wish I still had it.)
A postscript: Have you heard about Uzma Jalaluddin’s new novel, Much Ado About Nada, which is inspired by Persuasion? I just read a CBC article about it this morning—“Uzma Jalaluddin takes on Jane Austen’s Persuasion in her latest modern Muslim retelling of a rom-com classic”—and I enjoyed the excerpt that was included, so I’ve pre-ordered a copy. The publication date is June 13th.