Eight years ago, Anne Elliot broke off her engagement to the dashing young naval officer Frederick Wentworth on the advice of a friend. Now twenty-seven and considered a faded beauty, she is resigned to a spinster’s life when she learns that Wentworth, now a captain and wealthy with prize money from the Napoleonic Wars, has returned. While Anne visits her married younger sister Mary, Wentworth pays frequent calls on Mary’s two charming sisters-in-law. Although Anne tries to avoid him she cannot, and although she knows he has not forgiven her, his presence is a constant reminder of what she has lost.
I’m trying to work out my classical literature muscle, but reading Austen feels like cheating. While it takes me longer than usual to orient myself in the story, her writing is always captivating. I don’t know how she manages to make the most mundane details about society and life in the 1800s incredibly fascinating.
But I hate to hear you talking so like a fine gentleman, and as if women were all fine ladies, instead of rational creatures. We none of us expect to be in smooth water all our days.
I’m trying to convince myself I’m not a hypocritical reader, but the same trope that drives me crazy in modern writing is the epitome of suspense and romance in classical literature. Anne and Frederick are kept apart for years due to miscommunication – or more truthfully, a lack of communication – and I fucking love it. But if miscommunication causes a problem that lasts longer than a chapter in a book published after 1980, it drives me nuts. I guess I’m more accepting of the social standards that prevented women from stepping outside of their expected role in classic lit. In contrast, after hundreds of years, I’d rather see literature representing a better present (and future), not only for my gender but for everyone. Utilising poor communication styles as plot points or tropes perpetuates relationships based on superficial meaning and a society that expects people to stay in their lane and avoid disrupting the norm. I’d rather have relationships (parental, platonic, and romantic) modelled by people who communicate openly and honestly and aren’t afraid to speak out, or speak out of turn, to right a wrong or get a point across – even if it may be unexpected or embarrassing.
"I do not think I ever opened a book in my life which had not something to say upon woman's inconstancy. Songs and proverbs, all talk of woman's fickleness. But perhaps you will say, these were all written by men."
"Perhaps I shall. Yes, yes, if you please, no reference to examples in books. Men have had every advantage of us in telling their own story. Education has been theirs in so much higher a degree; the pen has been in their hands."
Anne’s rediscovery of life and herself is a beautiful arc in this story. After giving in to the family pressure to break her engagement, she disappears into herself. Constantly surrounded by the members of her family who think so little of her appearance, capabilities, and potential, she wilts. Elizabeth and her father are so shallow and entitled. When they face hardship, they act exactly as expected by this social class in this era – they blame others and refuse to change. They are incapable of accepting help or advice, wanting what they want and expecting others to make it happen. Unfortunately for Anne, this is usually her responsibility.
When the evening was over, Anne could not but be amused at the idea of her coming to Lyme to preach patience and resignation to a young man whom she had never seen before; nor could she help fearing, on more serious reflection, that, like many other great moralists and preachers, she had been eloquent on a point in which her own conduct would ill bear examination.
When Anne stays behind while the rest of her family moves to Bath, she starts to come alive again – even before Frederick returns. She rediscovers having a purpose and participating in intelligent conversation. I can’t even imagine spending years not only heartbroken but feeling your brain turn to mush because you’re surrounded by people who only want to talk about status, gossip, and unimportant nonsense. It would have been so freeing to have her world open up again – to be reacquainted with Frederick, sure, but also to spend time with people who care about her and value her presence in their lives. It makes her life so much brighter and more worthwhile.
Anne smiled and said,
"My idea of good company, Mr Elliot, is the company of clever, well-informed people, who have a great deal of conversation; that is what I call good company."
"You are mistaken," said he gently, "that is not good company; that is the best."
I became more invested with every page. The lack of communication (which, as I stated previously, is acceptable only due to the era) built the suspense. As it looked more likely that characters would end up with the wrong people, I couldn’t stop reading. I love me some Austen; her characters live and breathe due to her attention to detail, and it makes settling into a story set in the 1800s surprisingly easy. I need to introduce more Austen into my life, especially if it improves my ability to read and appreciate more classical literature.