Emily Rae Robles

the paradoxymoron

Book Review: Persuasion

I should probably admit my horrifying secret right off the bat before I even start this review: I don’t like Jane Austen. I’ve tried. My first encounter with her was in junior high. After years of hearing my mother rave about her humor, wit, and writing skill, I finally gave in and read Sense and Sensibility. I was probably either too young or too immature to appreciate it at all; I just remember being bored. A few years later, I read Pride and Prejudice. I was slightly more able to keep up with the storyline, characters, and themes, but the end result was once again that I was bored. Finally, this summer, I decided that I needed to catch up on all the Jane Austen I’ve missed out on, so I grabbed Persuasion off of my mom’s bookshelf and delved in. Once again, I sadly found myself bored.

I didn’t want to be bored by such a classic; really, I didn’t. I wanted to laugh at Austen’s biting social commentary, commiserate with the tortured heroine, and rejoice at the happy ending. But somehow, the whole thing seemed inauthentic. This is probably a sign of my immaturity or inability to understand the time in which the story is set, but I promise I at least tried.

The main thing that bothered me about Persuasion was the emphasis on intelligent society for which Austen is so renowned. As much as I enjoy a good discussion, it gets on my nerves when intellect or understanding is glorified above all else. It reminds me too much of the stereotypical pompous English major who looks down her nose at the obliviously cheerful citizens of the world, going about their daily business without even an attempt to comprehend the intertwining themes of life. I love the discovery involved in reading a good book, but the pretentiousness gets old after a while.

Although I’m sure I would have enjoyed the company of Jane Austen were we friends in real life, I’m not so sure she would like me. I don’t know that I’m sensible enough. Her writing is peppered with statements from the heroines such as “She was too ignorant and giddy for respect” (Chapter 9) and “My idea of good company is the company of clever, well-informed people, who have a great deal of conversation” (Chapter 4). That’s an awful lot of pressure.

I should probably stop rambling about how much I dislike pretentiousness, because it’s making me feel pretentious. To end on a slightly happier note, Persuasion is definitely a thoughtful book with characters that really come to life. Maybe someday I’ll grow up and be able to enjoy it more.

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July 11, 2011 - Posted by | book review

4 Comments »

  1. I clicked “Like” on your review – not because I agree with you in re Jane Austen, but because I thought “Brava!” – someone – esp. a woman, who is willing to admit she doesn’t like something that every woman is “supposed” to like, appreciate and/or enjoy!

    I’ll tell you my embarrassing secret about Jane Austen’s books. I had to see one of the movie versions of one of her novels to start really enjoying the books. Sense and Sensibility has always been my favorite JA, but it took seeing Emma Thompson’s brilliant adapted screenplay and the wonderful acting of the entire cast to really bring that novel to life for me. (Plus, I’ve always been in love with Hugh Grant!) After that, I was able to read all the Jane Austen books with a whole new understanding of the time period out of which she came. The thing about her is that I believe it is essential to read her in the context of her time. I’m not saying that you didn’t, but that was the trick for me, because I, too, had not read them in high school (wasn’t required back then), and waited until later, when I started hearing more talk and discussion about them – particularly at the height of the Women’s Lib movement. Besides, IMHO, JA is best read by adults. It is definitely not YA fiction, like the Brontës’ can be.

    The language of the period can indeed sound pretentious, but I don’t believe that it was at the time. Also, the realtionships between the educated and the more so-called “low-brow “of society was different altogether than the “inter-class” relations of this day and time. For one thing, the undereducated servant or work-a-day people were woefuly uninformed – many did not read, and it was difficult to have a stimulating conversation with them; however, that does not mean that the people JA wrote about were rude or unkind or uncommunicative with those others – on the contrary, many had very cordial and friendly relations with all people. But she did point out the boorishness of snobs frequently, and made fun of them. She evidently found such rudeness hard to put up with as well! I’.

    After I saw that first JA movie, S&S, I eagerly looked forward to all the more recent versions. (Actually, I did see the Greer Garson/Laurence Olivier version of P&P a LOOOOONNNNG time ago, and never liked it – it was far too old fashioned for me, which of course it was. It was a period movie in the context of the years in which the film was made – so it came out far too melodramatic).

    The BBC version of P&P (with the gorgeous Colin Firth as Darcy) really is wonderful – and covers, because it is a mini series, much more than the most recent movie with Keira Knightley. I have DVD’s of both versions, (I have DVD’s of almost every JA film except the aforementioned Garson/Olivier version) and love them both for different reasons. I adore Gwynneth Paltrow as Emma, and the movie is altogether wonderful, and would be a great intro to you for a re-read of the book!. The film of Persuasion, however, has to be among one of my favorites, along with S&S. The acting is superb, and everything about it (although not as close to the book as most purists would like) is also just wonderful, romantic entertainment without being sloppy!

    Northanger Abbey is OK – both book and film, but not high on my recommend list.

    The other is Mansfield Park, and I love the film and book. The film is a bit easier to follow, so if you have not read the book – definitely see that movie first! Great acting.

    Now that I have bored you by going on and on, I will say that even if you never read any of the JA novels again, go ahead and see the film versions. You most likely enjoy them, and even if not, you’ve only used up a couple of hours versus the time it takes to slog through her novels again!

    Great post, Emily – thanks for letting me drone on! (Do you have a choice? Of course, you can delete it – that’s OK!)

    Comment by Paula Tohline Calhoun | July 11, 2011 | Reply

    • Wow, thanks for the extensive comment! I feel kind of bad for posting a negative review of a book that I still respect a lot, but I figured I should be honest about my (perhaps ill-informed) opinion. What confuses me is that I should logically love Jane Austen. She’s smart, she’s witty, and like you said, her novels are extremely ahead of her time. I suppose I should clarify that I don’t necessarily find HER pretentious; it’s just that her books remind me too much of English classes, which isn’t her fault since she came before the English classes, so really I’m just being shallow.

      I’ve seen the BBC Pride and Prejudice as well as Sense and Sensibility, but none of the others. I guess I have a lot of catching up to do! Emma is next on my list; hopefully I’ll be able to get past my own pride and prejudice to enjoy it!

      Comment by emilyrae | July 11, 2011 | Reply

  2. My favorite JA is Mansfield Park. Even though the 1999 movie is not even close to a hundred percent faithful to the novel, it’s still a pretty fantastic film, with Johnny Lee Miller and Francces O Connor. From what I understand, the novel interweaves Jane Austen’s actual life and Mansfield Park, but O Connor is so fantastic in it, that it’s become my favorite Austen adaptation.

    While I enjoyed reading MF, PP, and Persuasion, I have been completely stumped in my efforts to read either Emma, Sense and Sensibility and Northanger Abbey. I’ve been trying to read Emma for the last ten yrs and still have not succeeded. But I will be participating in a read-along to get through Sense and Sensibility. Strength in numbers!

    Comment by Jennifer O @ Lit Endeavors | July 12, 2011 | Reply

    • I think I actually saw the movie version of Sense and Sensibility before I read the book, and I think twelve-year-old me was better able to understand it because of the movie. Maybe I should try watching more JA movies to see if that helps pique my interest. I definitely feel like I have a lot of catching up to do!

      Comment by emilyrae | July 12, 2011 | Reply


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