Less than persuasive

Persuasion by Jane AustenIt's hard not to enjoy Jane Austen, but Persuasion is definitely the weakest of her main novels. (FYI, I'm a Northanger Abbey girl.) I'm about halfway through a reread at the moment and it has been a struggle. Perhaps reading it on Kindle doesn't help, as I find myself an inattentive screen reader, but I keep getting the characters muddled up and I'm certainly finding Anne a bit of a wet blanket. With her broken heart and gentle ways, there is little of the feistiness of Austen's best characters. 

I wonder if there is a problem in rereading Austen once you're out of your twenties anyway. For most keen readers, of the female flavour anyway, Austen is a treasure you discover in your teen years. With her sparkling wit and her romantic dramas, books like Pride and Prejudice are perfect for hormonally-challenged youngsters. We might not be awaiting a proposal from a Mr Darcy, but we're certainly mooning over the cute guy in our English class or hoping to be asked to the school disco for an awkward slow dance under the watchful eyes of PE staff. Reading Austen makes these heartbreaks and romances seem elegant. She might be long dead but you can imagine her feeling the same passions that keep you awake at night. She's part of the sisterhood.

And this can continue into your twenties. You're likely to experience your first serious relationship and the perils that come from trying to build a life with someone. Good news: Austen has some tips for you there, as she does for break-ups, thwarted romantic ambitions, and dealing with the interference of friends and family in your love life. Again, she's got you covered! Considering she only wrote six major novels, Austen can seem like a supremely reliable friend.

But in your thirties? I don't want to say that romance is dead by this point, but I think most of us have a better idea of what we're dealing with. We're beyond falling for the untrustworthy charmer, for a start. In fact, seeing some of Austen's women handwringing over boys in a way that would have been embarrassing at 15 is actively painful at 30. And then there are the social issues within Jane Austen's books, namely the narrow class focus. Ok, judging her work by today's social standards is hardly fair, but there was plenty of writing around that acknowledged a world beyond the drawing room. Weirdly, these books that are held up as great canonical literature seem almost frivolous compared to some of the serious literary fiction of recent years. 

This isn't to say that Austen doesn't have a place anymore. It's more an acknowledgement that, like most cultural artifacts, her work resonates most significantly at a particular time in one's life. Discovering Jeff Buckley at 14 was much more meaningful to me than it would have been at 28, and I got a lot more out of American writers like Franzen and Roth when I was in my mid-twenties than I would have done earlier. If I can't enjoy Persuasion now like I once did, that's balanced out by having a much smarter head about relationships and love than I used to when I was hormone-ridden mess of a teenager. That seems a fair swap to me.


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