Recommended Reads: "Persuasion" by Jane Austen

I enjoyed Persuasion very much. I was surprised to find it quite suspenseful! Which meant I was focused more on turning the pages than absorbing the subtleties of Austen's storytelling. A month and a half or so later, I can't remember the names of most of the people in the book (though I tend to forget this kind of stuff regularly — this is why I'm often able to re-read books!). But this is what I do remember: I found the first two chapters quite difficult. It wasn't until the third chapter that Persuasion really grabbed me, and the rapid page-turning began. I think this is because the first chapter is mostly concerned with telling the backstory of Anne Elliot's family, focusing largely on her father, Sir Walter Elliott, who is extremely annoying! The second chapter focuses on the Elliot family's financial woes, which are clearly important as they set up the whole of the book, but felt very tedious to me. Finally, in chapter 3, the navy men arrived — and I knew the story was about to speed up.

You might think that a couple of chapters of backstory wouldn't necessarily be a problem. I am a writer of young adult fiction, though, and lately I've been thinking very hard about how to start a book, because I've had trouble with it in my own writing. I've agonized over how to deliver the right amount of backstory in the first few pages without turning it into a sludgy infodump. So to encounter all this backstory beginning with page 1 was very thought-provoking. Is it something that can only be done in adult literary fiction (or even "classics")? Is it verboten in YA and that's why I was surprised by it? Can it ever be done well? (I have no answers.)

It's also a very different sort of beginning than the one in Pride and Prejudice, which begins immediately with the arrival of the potential love interest. I have read that Austen wrote Persuasion more quickly than her other books because she was ill, and it was, after all, published shortly after her death. I wonder if that had anything to do with the slower beginning. (As in, she wasn't able to polish it as much.)

I have to admit the fact that I found the first two chapters very slow was also a bit horrifying to me. I started to wonder if I've become a lazy reader, demanding action from the first sentence, rather than being more patient. What's so bad about giving a novel a couple of chapters to warm up? Are we just so ADD these days with so much media demanding our attention that we can no longer sit still and absorb something a little more slowly paced?

Another thing I discovered while reading Persuasion: Some of Austen's sentences were extremely long, and this filled me with an unexpected glee. One sentence in particular, in which Austen describes Lyme (a town in England), just went on and on and on with a wonderful series of commas and semicolons. I had to reread it several times to get it all. I loved it. Here's that complete sentence from Chapter 11, punctuated with a single, definitive colon toward the end:

The scenes in its neighbourhood, Charmouth, with its high grounds and extensive sweeps of country, and still more, its sweet, retired bay, backed by dark cliffs, where fragments of low rock among the sands make it the happiest spot for watching the flow of the tide, for sitting in unwearied contemplation; the woody varieties of the cheerful village of Up Lyme; and, above all, Pinny, with its green chasms between romantic rocks, where the scattered forest trees and orchards of luxuriant growth declare that many a generation must have passed away since the first partial falling of the cliff prepared the ground for such a state, where a scene so wonderful and so lovely is exhibited as may more than equal any of the resembling scenes of the far-famed Isle of Wight: these places must be visited, and visited again, to make the worth of Lyme understood.

A really well-done long sentence unwinds like a river; it has a rhythm that surges and pauses, coming to rest, hopefully, at a very interesting place. Yet I think that a lot of contemporary fiction (especially YA and commercial fiction) is full of short, punchy sentences. Maybe it's out of fashion to enjoy an embroidered turn of phrase. But I thoroughly enjoyed Austen's long sentences, even as I laughed because I couldn't fit the entire thing into my head at once.

Finally, the thing that readers love most about Persuasion, probably, is the love story between Anne Elliot and Captain Wentworth. It sets up a situation that many of us have likely fantasized about: re-encountering your first love, many years later, and finding a way back together again. Anne and Wentworth's history gave all of their encounters in Persuasion a deeper meaning. It's a completely different feel from a romance involving two people falling in love for the first time. It's more bittersweet. Actions have a different intensity; behaviors can always seem to mean more than one thing (and probably do).

I've now written two YA novels involving romance. Neither of them were reunion stories, but I really would like to write one of those someday.

Have you read Persuasion? Do you remember what you thought of it after your first reading? (Or second, or third?)