Folks, yours truly was a weird kid. Somewhere around the tender age of 12, having deemed the education I received at the local catholic school unsufficient for my needs, I decided to educate myself.
I started, quite naturally, with a book called ‘Education – everything one needs to know’. (It is quite a good book, but I didn’t get the irony of the title until much later.) The book duly listed all major events of world history, philosophy and literature – and, featured, at the very end, a list called ‘books that changed the world’.
Now I am a sucker for lists, and this one was no exception. Armed with the list, I ventured to the local (also catholic) library, where, in a forgotten corner, I found them – dusty, unloved books called ‘Classics’.
And so I, a pre-teen at best, started to read Stendhal and Tolstoy, Dickens and Hardy, diligently ticking off each title once I read it.
Then, one day, upon perusing the TV Programme (this was in the days before Netflix), I noticed the education channel was showing one of Jane Austen’s books. I was disappointed to realize it wasn’t Pride and Prejudice (which featured on my list), but Persuasion (which didn’t).
Still, I was a presumptuous kid, so I asked my dad to record it for me. I did not expect much – I’d just suffered through Dante’s Inferno, which had horrifying consequences for my Catholic faith. By now, I understood why nobody was interested in these books. They were to be suffered through, not to be enjoyed.
With little hope, but with superior faith in my mission, I started the video, ready to suffer through 90 minutes of old timey people talking in weird English.
But immediately, I realized that this was nothing like Dante – this, THIS was something completely different. I found myself feverishly following the fate of Anne Elliot and Captain Wentworth.
Now, Anne had rebuked Captain Wentworth’s proposal six years prior – she loved him, oh how she loved him, but her confidante advised against the union, because she regarded Wentworth as ‘man without prospects’. (My twelve year old self gasped, outraged. How dare this woman stand in the way of true love!)
And now, Wentworth had come back! He made a fortune IN THE WAR – at least twenty thousand pounds! (I did not know how much money this translated to, but it was enough to know that Wentworth was loaded, Anne had regrets, and her family was insuffrable.)
This – all of this – I understood. (Or at least twelve year old me thought she understood.) This wasn’t just your average dusty classic. This was LONGING and PINING and the slowest build-up of feelings.
Think about it: Anne didn’t reject Wentworth because she couldn’t fuckin’ stand him. Anne loved Wentworth, and he loved her. It was real and undeniable. They cannot unsay any of it. And then it was over.
And that’s JUST THE BACKSTORY.
So despite Wentworth being hella difficult for Anne to read, and her own shattered expectations and self-esteem leading her to believe that of course he’s over her and totally into Louisa Musgrove, why wouldn’t he be, she’s young and cute and so many things Anne is not…we still get to watch Anne burn for this man after eight years apart and know that that’s a fire that’s never going to go out for the rest of her life, if time and distance and hopelessness haven’t managed to put out those flames.
The misery. The agony. The helpless and resentful eyefucking. That LETTER.
Let me tell you about that letter. It comes at a point where you know, without a doubt, that Anne has always loved Frederick – always has, always will. You don’t know about him. You hope, you try to read him, you try not to get your hopes up – and then HE WRITES HER A SECRET LETTER.
Persuasion is Jane Austen’s last novel, and there’s a myth that she got off her deathbed to re-write the letter because she didn’t like the first version. Either way, it is among the best things I have ever read. Don’t believe me? Judge for yourself:
I can listen no longer in silence. I must speak to you by such means as are within my reach. You pierce my soul. I am half agony, half hope. Tell me not that I am too late, that such precious feelings are gone for ever. I offer myself to you again with a heart even more your own than when you almost broke it, eight years and a half ago. Dare not say that man forgets sooner than woman, that his love has an earlier death. I have loved none but you. Unjust I may have been, weak and resentful I have been, but never inconstant. You alone have brought me to Bath. For you alone, I think and plan. Have you not seen this? Can you fail to have understood my wishes? I had not waited even these ten days, could I have read your feelings, as I think you must have penetrated mine. I can hardly write. I am every instant hearing something which overpowers me. You sink your voice, but I can distinguish the tones of that voice when they would be lost on others. Too good, too excellent creature! You do us justice, indeed. You do believe that there is true attachment and constancy among men. Believe it to be most fervent, most undeviating,
in F. W.
I must go, uncertain of my fate, but I shall return hither, or follow your party, as soon as possible. A word, a look will be enough to decide whether I enter your father’s house this evening, or never.
At this point, my twelve year old me was just about ready to DIE.
(Okay, I’m not going to lie – the letter gets me every time. EVERY DAMN TIME because it’s so good.)
All of this was iconic before I knew what that word meant. Needless to say, I love the movie – I own it on VHS, DVD and on iTunes.) (In another side note, I blame the movie with my ever lasting appreciation for men in uniform, because Ciaran Hinds in his Captain’s Blues is a sight to behold.)
The thing about Persuasion that just kills me is that the central premise— “I hope the person who broke my heart has a miserable life and I get to watch them be humiliated while I get everything I ever wanted” is so universal. Like, we’ve all been there, right? And then Jane, like the true icon that she is, turns the whole thing on its head.
I love this book with my heart and soul, and so should you.