I discovered Jane Austen at the age of 14. It all started with that now immortal BBC period drama Pride and Prejudice starring a very dark and brooding Colin Firth and featuring a racy scene involving a white shirt and diving into a lake (which I played in slow motion many times when I later bought the video, then the DVD box set). I watched the first TV episode and immediately rushed out to borrow the book from the library.
Previously, if someone asked me to pick my favourite Jane Austen book, I suppose I’d say Pride and Prejudice. But as I get older, the book Persuasion is starting to resonate more with me. When you are younger and offered love, you think there will always be someone else around the corner. Maybe a better opportunity. You get to your late twenties and you’ve probably broken a few hearts and got yours broken too. Then you begin to play that ‘what if’ game where you imagine you had acted in a different way. You may start to think that maybe you’ve let your best shot at love go.
Persuasion is a simple story if you haven’t read it, but as with all Jane Austen books it is rich in characters and subplots. Anne Elliot falls in love with a young naval officer called Frederick Wentworth when she is 19. Her family, in particular a family friend called Lady Russell, persuades Anne that this match is beneath her. Frederick has no wealth and little prospects. He has ‘no connections.’
We never know Anne and Frederick as they were back then: young and in love. We meet Anne when she is twenty-seven and all her hopes of ever getting married have truly passed her by. The years haven’t been kind. Her spendthrift father and sister have almost beggared the family. They must let out their house for money. And who should they let to – the sister and brother-in-law of Frederick – now Captain Frederick Wentworth and very rich.
Is there anything worse than having had love a long time ago, rejected it, and lived to regret your decision? And then this object of your love returns into your life, but they ignore you. They are cold and bitter. You are not forgiven. Instead, he has his eye on one of your family friends, a girl who is, let’s face it, a lot younger and more fun than you.
In the end the lovers get their happy ending. How they get there is well worth reading. But in real life Jane Austen’s health was deteriorating and she died in the year after finishing this book. I wonder if the regret of life’s missed chances, communicated by the character Anne, was something Jane was examining as her health grew worse. Was she looking back on her life and regretting a time when she was persuaded to say “no” to love? Did she have to give her characters the happy ending in love that she herself never experienced?
So many books have been written about the life of Jane Austen. I think the woman who wrote such spirited books had to have enjoyed life – whether as a keen observer in the corner or as a full participant in society. Maybe she never married, but she left behind these stories that millions of readers are still enjoying and dissecting. How many of us could achieve the same in our lifetime?
I visited Jane’s final resting place when I lived in the UK. A simple marker stone in Winchester Cathedral tells of a devoted sister and says nothing of the famous writer. It was only decades later that fans of her books put up a tribute to her contribution as an author nearby. As I stood there contemplating the influence of Jane Austen’s books on my life, I hoped that when she lived she got the chance to grab her own bit of happiness in love.
(BTW, sorry for the long time between posts. I was away visiting my sister, brother-in-law and nephews.)