John Wiltshire, one of the best and most thoughtful modern critics of Jane Austen, shows why her last novel, Persuasion, is rated so highly by readers and academics alike.
Persuasion is now probably the favourite Austen book after Pride and Prejudice. It tells the story of a life that might have been wasted, but is redeemed by love. It is a story by anyone who believes in second chances, or, in Tony Tanner's words 'to anyone who has experienced the sense of an irreparably ruined owing to an irrevocable mistaken decision'. While Pride and Prejudice was written when Austen was a young, marriageable woman, Persuasion was written when she was in her forties, and it features a heroine who, at twenty-seven, could in those days be destined, like Austen herself, to life as a spinster. As John Wiltshire, one of the best modern critics of Austen shows in this guide, the atmosphere of the two books is quite different, like the social world they depict - one 'light and bright and sparkling' as Jane Austen herself called it, the other more sombre, shadowed by several deaths, and sometimes gentle and sometimes savage in its irony. But Persuasion has endeared itself to readers because the romance it celebrates takes place so convincingly within a constricting and believable social world. It's a love story for adults. Anne Elliot is quiet, accommodating, kind and thoughtful, but Jane Austen avoids making her a picture of perfection by inviting the reader into her consciousness. We see that she is watchful of herself, critical of herself, aware of her own self-deceptions, but at the same time subject to impulses and longings, to the dreams and sexual desires we all share.
Professor John Wiltshire is Emeritus Professor of English at La Trobe University, Australia. His work on Jane Austen includes the Cambridge edition of Mansfield Park (2005), and the books Jane Austen and the Body: "The Picture of Health" (1992), Recreating Jane Austen (2001), Jane Austen: Introductions and Interventions (2003), and The Cinematic Jane Austen (2009).
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