Saturday, November 23, 2013

Anne with an "E"

So I am deeply immersed in the first few chapters of Jane Austen's Persuasion, my book club's first book selection, when it hit me- The protagonist in this novel is Anne, more specifically Anne with an "e."

This may seem like a silly observation to most, but to a literature lover with a special fondness in her heart for a fellow ginger in the character of Anne Shirley from Anne of Green Gables, this caused a freak out moment of epic proportions. Go gingers! Go Annes!

Anywho. Back to the Anne I'm supposed to be studying for book club.

Anne Elliot is the middle daughter of a pompous and conceited baronet. She is quiet, sensible, and selfless. It is clear that her arrogant, fool of a father (Oops! Is my absolute disdain for this figure showing? I'll try to reign it in...) does not see any value in his daughter, because she is neither especially beautiful or as concerned with keeping up appearances as he and his eldest daughter are. Still, Anne faithfully serves her family to the best of her ability.

When she was young, she fell in love with a dashing nobody of man, and was superbly happy. But her father and mentor were not impressed. Weighted down by their disapproval of what they considered such an imprudent match, Anne broke off the engagement, and has been brokenhearted and filled with regret ever since.

Having read the book multiple times before and watching the movie version on many a blustery evening, I have the comfort of knowing how this story plays out. But for the sake of the book club, I'm trying to pretend that I don't know the outcome, and reporting my thoughts and feelings as they occur, chapter by chapter.

With that in mind, I'm sure I'll have many more "GRRRRRRRRRR!!!!!!!!!!!" and "What the even heck?!" moments regarding her friends and family, the breakup of her relationship with Wentworth, and her daily adventures.

For now, I'll try to focus on the first two chapters.

The story begins with Sir Walter Elliot, the baronet owning Kellynch Hall. Sir Elliot is vain, pretentious, and preoccupied by rank and social status. He is obsessed with the Baronetage, a book detailing the family histories of all the muckety mucks in England.

We learn that Sir Elliot's wife has died, leaving behind three daughters- Elizabeth, Anne, and Mary. Elizabeth is by far her father's favorite, and follows after him in conceit and entitlement. Anne is the most like her deceased mother, being practical, humble, and kind. Mary, the youngest, is the only married daughter, which gives her a tremendous feeling of importance.

We're also introduced to Lady Russell, a friend of the late Lady Elliot, who has become a trusted family advisor.

Since Sir Elliot had no sons, his fortune would fall to a cousin, Mr. William Elliot. It was Sir Walter's deepest wish that William marry Elizabeth, but the heir wanted nothing to do with the scheme. He spoke poorly about them behind their backs, and opted to marry a wealthy woman of little rank in order to be more independent. Sir Walter and Elizabeth never forgave him for it.

In the beginning of the book, we also discover that Sir Walter was facing significant money troubles. With his wife's practical guidance and frugality gone, nothing held him back from spending lavishly to live a lifestyle in keeping with his high rank. Debts were piling up around him, and Mr. Shepard, his advisor, along with Lady Russell, try to come up with a plan to get him out of his financial mess.

He must retrench, making cut backs in order to get out from under the mountain of debt he created for himself. Anne agrees, and in fact, wishes harsher cut backs would be made in order to pay back what the family owes even sooner.

Unfortunately, Sir Walter feels the restrictions can't be borne with; that doing without the comforts and customs he presently enjoyed would be disgraceful to a man of his rank. Instead, he opted for Mr. Shepard's suggestion of leaving Kellynch Hall, and moving to Bath where a household could be run in a more modest way without lessening his status among his peers. Once again, Anne's wishes against going to Bath were dismissed, and Sir Walter agreed to rent Kellynch Hall, as long as a suitable tenant was found.

These first couple of chapters illustrated two things. First, Sir Walter's character illustrates the self-importance and snobbishness of members of high society in general. Appearance was everything. It meant nothing to him that he abandoned responsibilities and obligations, because maintaining the illusion of wealth and prestige was his highest value. Honoring one's debts and being a man of integrity never entered his head. By contrast, Anne was deeply disturbed that the family had fallen so far into debt, and wished to rectify the situation as quickly as possible and by any means necessary. (Her reaction reminded me of Dave Ramsey's "gazelle intensity" of getting out of debt, but that's another blog post! Haha!) The difference in these two's approaches to their money problem speaks volumes.

Second, the beginning of the novel sets up the unique Elliot family dynamic. We get a character sketch of each of the family members, as well as secondary characters like Mr. Shepard and Lady Russell. We know that Sir Walter values appearances, Elizabeth her good looks, Anne honor and good sense, Mary her marriage, and Lady Russell respectability. Sir Walter's idiocy is on full display, as well as Anne's attempts to clean up his messes. Yet Anne received no reward for her dedication to her family; instead, Anne's desires are cast aside, and even Elizabeth prefers the company of a woman of questionable motives, Mrs. Clay, to that of her sweet sister.

I think Persuausion, more so than any of Austen's other novels, is the most blatantly cynical and satirical. The sharp contrasts are very present for the reader. Her social statements are hardly subtle, even from the very first few chapters! Even though I've read this book before, it's easy to forget all the details and nuances and humor found in Persuasion's pages. I am so excited to continue reading, and I'll be sure to keep y'all informed of my impressions!

Happy reading, everyone!

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