I’ve read, or attempted to read, all her work now, except Northanger Abbey and have hemmed and hawed for years over whether I really like her (P and P was so funny) or don’t (but Emma was so insufferable) or if she is really just historical, academic fluff, interesting from a cultural point of view. Certainly different from George Eliot and the Brontes.
In my third ever Literature class in college, our teacher divided us up into groups and asked us to point out to her some ideas that Austen shared with her poet contemporaries, Wordsworth and Coleridge. So we all dove into our Features of Romanticism bullet-point sheet and racked our brains to come up with stuff about long walks among hedges and so on and so forth, and my professor just rolled her eyes at the end of it ‘Fools!’ said she, or something like, ‘Austen isn’t a Romantic at all.’ Which was a great relief.
Not that I’m a die-hard fan of the Romantics, but I think that in Persuasion Austen just outdoes herself with regard to the individuality of her characters. I like Elizabeth Bennett because she speaks her mind, but I love Anne Elliott because she knows her own mind, at least through the course of the novel, and Austen narrates the story of how she got to her moral and intellectual and emotional independence with a tenderness that is a far cry from her youthful lack of compassion for anyone in Pride and Prejudice. Anne has a conversation with Captain Harville towards the end that positively fills the modern feminist heart to capacity with joy: she politely rubbishes all Captain Harville's thoughts about literature handing down the traditional notions of womanly inconstancy and lack of intelligence. Anne has thought about the fact that women have never had the chance to tell stories, and when Wentworth, the man of her dreams, proclaims undying love for her a few short minutes after she makes this observation, you know you have a winning couple. It's enough to make you hop about on one leg in glee.
I’ve never really liked any of Austen’s male protagonists before. But the best thing about the narrative that leads up to this thrilling moment is that throughout the story, I didn’t resent Captain Wentworth at all. It’s easy to be distracted by Darcy’s tallness and darkness and taciturnity, sure, but in the end all her other heroes turn out to be patronising wankers, getting what they want because of authorial indulgence, a conquering of woman if there ever was one. But here is a man who suffers and wins out and makes mistakes and has a mind of his own and would probably offer his wife oral sex. GUH. I’m really not sure what’s up with Austen’s undue affection for the Navy – it’s not even like she makes sailor-boys kiss or anything – but it’s really very tolerable compared with her earlier tendency to crush on men with ten thou a year and an entitlement complex the size of Africa.