(author’s note: As this is a long post, I thought I’d try something new: headings! “My Favourite” is the introduction, followed by four main points: “Polished”, “The Love Stories”, “The Experience of Regret”, “Resolutions”, and concluded by “In Sum”. Is it easier to read this way or more confusing?)
Though Pride and Prejudice is, I would say, my favourite book, Persuasion is my favourite Austen book.
This sounds a little convoluted, especially as Persuasion and Pride and Prejudice are, in fact, both by Jane Austen.
There are different kinds of favourites, though. Pride and Prejudice is, I think, the better book. It is more polished, for one. Persuasion starts out with two or three chapters where you, as the reader, are left seriously bored and confused. It appears, in these chapters, that Austen has chosen a male as the primary protagonist, and a silly one at that, both of which are uncharacteristic for Austen’s stories, and the second which makes for an unengaging tale. Should I be, the reader wonders, engaging in this silly man’s concerns or should I be laughing at him? No direction is provided until midway through chapter two as to whom the sensible character in the story is, and it isn’t until chapter four that the narrative voice switches over and rests on Anne as the primary character through whom the reader should perceive the story.
While the narrator in Persuasion settles on the silly Sir Walter Elliot at the start and then moves three chapters later to settle on Anne Elliot for the rest, the narrator in Pride and Prejudice settles on no one, maintaining an amused but distant view until we reach Elizabeth. And while the narrator is fairly omniscient (seeing and hearing things that Elizabeth does not), the world view (what is valued, etc) of Elizabeth is maintained from start to finish.
The Love Stories
The two main love stories in Pride and Prejudice are common, and if not experienced by the reader, highly sympathized with.
The first is that of Elizabeth and Darcy. The reader watches and delights in the transformation in both as their initial dislike for each other melts into respect, then regard, then love.
The second is that of Jane and Bingley, another romance that we sympathize with: being separated by circumstances outside of the control of the characters. Even if we haven’t experienced that kind of separation, we desire the resolution of their relationship as much as we might desire the resolution of our own broken relationships.
There is a pseudo-third romance in the story, between Lydia and Wickham, but there is not much love on either side. It is closer to selfishness and opportunism for each. Another reason I call it a pseudo-romance is because I believe that its main purpose is to highlight just how deep Darcy’s love for Elizabeth has become. Even though Wickham has wronged him, and Darcy wants nothing to do with him, Darcy is willing to embarrass himself to find Lydia and Wickham, allows himself to be present to insist on Wickham marrying Lydia, is generous enough to pay most of Wickham’s debts to allow a good start for the newly married couple, and is still deeply desirous of marrying Elizabeth, even though it will mean being forever tied to the man he so despises.
That is an aside.
The Experience of Regret
What I think so draws people to the romances in Pride and Prejudice is that they are easy to relate to. The characters are easy to step into (it is easy to see the world from their perspectives), the whole story comes to a comprehensive and satisfying conclusion, and — and I think this is what does it for a lot of people — none of the characters suffer any kind of irreparable regret.
Persuasion, on the other hand, is a love story founded on regret. It is heart-wrenching reading the stories in Pride and Prejudice and the characters suffer through many trials, but they have so much emotional support and satisfaction that, though they are suffering personally, they are never suffering singly. Jane and Elizabeth have each other for support, as well as their wise Aunt Gardiner and Charlotte Lucas, Darcy and Bingley have each other, there is a great deal of affection between Bingley and all of the Bennets, and everyone has family and friends all over town.
The relationship between Jane and Elizabeth, though, is the defining relationship in the book, with regards to safety from regret and suffering. They are dear and intimate friends, and though they don’t feel the need to do so for everything, they know that they will always have the freedom and support to share anything that they encounter. They know they can go to each other for advice, and they perfectly balance each other out when it comes to perceptions of the world and the people in it.
Anne Elliot in Persuasion is fairly isolated, if not in actual fact, at the very least when it comes to like-minded individuals. She lost her mother at a young age, she is drastically different from both of her sisters, and even her closest friend in the neighbourhood is still quite different than she is. As well, the greatest suffering she experienced in her lifetime (breaking off an engagement seven years before to a man she truly loves), she did so without a sympathizer for her true feelings. Even in the narrative present, she suffers alone and in silence when this man again arrives on the scene.
Pride and Prejudice also resolves a lot faster than Persuasion does. The resolution in Pride and Prejudice comes within a year of the arrival of troubles. The resolution in Persuasion takes nearly eight years to arrive. The former is more satisfying to the impatient human heart (“Lord God, why is this trouble still with me?”). The latter is, perhaps, more reflective of what actually happens. Repairing damaged relationships requires the reparation of damaged hearts and wounded pride. It requires humility and patience and buckets of forgiveness and grace from one party to the other. As much as we’d like that process to take no longer than a year, the heart is the part of our bodies that takes longest to heal, thus the delay in Persuasion is, though less immediately gratifying, perhaps more realistic and more deeply satisfying.
When someone asks what my favourite book is, I say Pride and Prejudice because it is the better book. It is more highly relate-able and I know it will be enjoyed by a first-time reader (especially a first-time Austen reader) to a greater degree than Persuasion.
Persuasion, however, is my secret favourite. I pull it out and read a love story that is bathed in regret, and watch, if not with elated joy, at least with immense satisfaction and contentment the long-awaited, -desired, and -needed resolution of it.