What are they like?


That Austen is now famous for her romantic plots is a tribute to her ability to make the events of apparently superficial lives so exciting; that she isn't more famous for her irony, an astringent on the ego of the reader, owes much to the touting of the costume-drama friendly Pride and Prejudice, with its interchangeable Bennet sisters, over Persuasion and its subtle and slow-burning wit.

A satire in all but its position in bookshops, this novel chronicles the attempts by its protagonist, Anne Elliot, to undo the deeds of her earlier, more impressionable self. At the advice of her friend Lady Russell and her father Sir Walter (both revealed as silly and petty), she had broken off an engagement with Captain Wentworth, who returns years later in different circumstances, yet no more welcomed by Anne's confidants. Less chick-lit and more a readable Vanity Fair, its sprawl tidied and checked, this novel critiques and lampoons the very characters who consider themselves decisive, moral and wise, yet mark themselves as fair game for such mockery through their actions, preferences and muddle-headed advice.

Standard Austenisms abound: multiple witnesses with multiple opinions; garrulous females and bluff servicemen; and a whiff of farce in the tortuous human relationships. Yet all the while that she strips her characters down to their social stereotypes, Austen displays such affection for them: tough love, disguised as deferential, throwaway remarks. This love prevents her criticisms from becoming callous, and strengthens her admonishment of her most foolish characters.

Austen put much of herself into this, her last novel: her dislike of the social whirl in Bath, the regrets of the early 19th Century twentysomething, her smothering mother. And a string of infirmities---a blow to the head, a kick from a horse---hints at the consumption which finally claimed Austen's life. Yet it's too easy to draw these parallels, and forget the true delight of Persuasion: every emperor finally stripped naked, divested of their new clothes, and only Wentworth and Elliot earning their figleaves and returning, prodigal and repentant, to their Eden.