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Book Group Discussion: June - Persuasion by Jane Austen [Jul. 11th, 2005|09:52 pm]
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[coalescent]
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This isn't going to be long. I struggled with this book. I found it dull, and difficult to read, and as a result I don't have much to say about it. I have a couple of things to say about my experience of reading it, but I'll need the rest of you to explain the book's actual merits.

If I hadn't been reading this for the book group, I'd have given up on it by page fifty, more or less as I gave up on Pride and Prejudice when I attempted that last year. I find Jane Austen's writing some of the most frustrating I have ever encountered. I approached part one of Persuasion as I would any other book for review, paying close attention, trying to take notes, but I just couldn't get a grasp on things. There was something in almost every paragraph that made me stumble.

Jane Austen's prose does nothing for me. This is because it's about a hundred and eighty years older than I am, I suspect, and because I can't make the mental shift of gears to understand it. Perhaps this is a consequence of my job, which expects me to be grammatically precise about everything (whether I actually am grammatically precise remains open for debate). Whatever: I find Austen's writing both over-punctuated and inconsistently punctuated. Half the sentences seem incomplete ("With regard to Captain Wentworth, though Anne hazarded no enquiries, there was voluntary information sufficient"--sufficient for what?) or uneven ("Anne's only surprise was, that affairs should be in forwardness enough for Henrietta's wedding-clothes to be talked of"--what on earth is that comma doing there? She can't really mean for us to pause at that point in the sentence, surely).

It seems jerky to read, and never lets me get involved in the story. The characters all sound the same, and all sound pompous and judgemental (it doesn't help that the only two ways of expression they have are to either say something or to cry it). They never become people; there is, for instance, no explanation for why Walter Elliot is the way he is, except that he just is that way because of his position. Most of the social observations sound feeble and obvious rather than sparkling and witty.

It took me the best part of eight hours to get through the first hundred pages, because I kept stopping, trying to understand what was happening, and failing. I'd normally expect to read that amount of text in a quarter of that time; here I was reading chapters three or four times over and coming away none the wiser. So for part two, I took a different approach: deliberately switched off any attempt to read critically, and just tried to read for story.

On one level, this was more successful; I got through the second hundred pages in only about three hours. On another level, it was still a dismal failure, because I had no interest in what was happening. The narrative arc of the book is painfully obvious from about page thirty, and does not deviate from expectation even a little (and let's not talk about how realistic it isn't that a liason of a few months eight years previously could be a reliable guide to the suitability of a future relationship). The petty and tedious obstacles that make sure everything takes as long to happen as it does are only there because all the characters are acting like idiots--or at least, from my perspective, acting like idiots. Like the prose, it's a fault that is with me and not the book: because the social conventions that would make the characters' behaviours seem reasonable to me are unknown to me and not explained, I get frustrated.

Only in the very last chapter, when suddenly there are conversations of substance, was I at all interested in the book. Up to that point, I would occasionally find that whole chapters had gone by without my remembering a single thing that had happened in them. That last chapter seems again clumsy to me, but by this point I was like a man dying of thirst in the desert, and at last Austen makes some interesting points about her society, and people's places within it. Without that last chapter, just about all I'd have come away from the book with is 'peer pressure is bad, m'kay'; with it, I at least come away with some interesting thoughts about social roles and gender.

I don't, however, come away with a desire to read any more Austen. Part of that is that I don't have a desire to read any other books written before about 1850. I suspect I'd find them equally baffling, and for many of the same reasons. But even if I did, I suspect Austen's would not be the books I would choose, because I don't think I'm interested in the stories that she's trying to tell.

So those are my problems. Now I open the floor for discussion: what, if any, are the book's real problems? What are its merits? What is it about, and why does it work? Did you find it plausible? Does that matter? How does it compare to Austen's other novels; how does it compare to modern novels? Exactly how wrongheaded am I?

Use both sides of the paper if necessary.
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[User Picture]From: sdn
2005-07-11 09:01 pm (UTC)
i adore you.
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[User Picture]From: coalescent
2005-07-11 09:27 pm (UTC)
Not an Austen fan either?
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[User Picture]From: immortalradical
2005-07-11 09:23 pm (UTC)
I think you've missed the point even more spectactularly than you did with The Name of the Rose, and I'm not even a particular Austen fan. But I can't summon up the reserves required to have the debate we had on MSN the other night again. Suffice to say - if reading critically is about figuring out how a semi-colon works in a sentence, God help us.

Reading Austen is like reading any other pre-modern author (although, again - I'd sooner read at least three dozen others before I read her): her characters will sound the same because we're not used to reading between the lines of their speech, her writing will be difficult to read because it doesn't adhere to the deeply arbitrary rules we now cling to, and her themes will seem simplistic because, without context, they are shorn of their nuances.

Having said all that - Austen has always struck me as slightly one note. To suggest, however, that she plays that note poorly just because she wrote before 1850, or because she doesn't explain what to her would have been perfectly obvious conventions, is surely to be a bit crap. You're asking a Georgian novel to be a modern novel. It can never be that.
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[User Picture]From: coalescent
2005-07-11 09:26 pm (UTC)
Suffice to say - if reading critically is about figuring out how a semi-colon works in a sentence, God help us.

It's not. But the fact that I have to stop and try to work out what her semicolons are doing, or more accurately the fact that I often can't, is what prevents me from reading critically.

You're asking a Georgian novel to be a modern novel. It can never be that.

No, that's what I was doing the other night, because it was 1am and I was feeling particularly frustrated. If you read this actual post, what I'm doing is saying "I can't read this, because it's outside my frame of reference", and then asking people to explain it to me.
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[User Picture]From: pikelet
2005-07-11 09:26 pm (UTC)
let's not talk about how realistic it isn't that a liason of a few months eight years previously could be a reliable guide to the suitability of a future relationship

I know not of this book, but I would suggest that applying the really rather different modern standards for romance/marriage/relationships to those of Austen's time may not be the best way to approach this particular material :-p
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[User Picture]From: coalescent
2005-07-11 09:27 pm (UTC)
"Like the prose, it's a fault that is with me and not the book: because the social conventions that would make the characters' behaviours seem reasonable to me are unknown to me and not explained, I get frustrated."
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[User Picture]From: applez
2005-07-11 10:01 pm (UTC)

Not an Austen fan ...

but would suggest two observations that may or may not help in this situation:

1. To what degree did you think you were reading in a stereotyped male way...the who, what, where, when - rather than all the fluff around this core structure?

2. With Austen's characters, one has to feel one's way through it, I think ... in the sense that one might also be in the same room with the protagonist under the same social conventions about one would not say under those circumstances; and also to consider that when you are in the protagonist's head, it is not a free flow within either, that the character's thoughts & deeper motives are hidden from the character themself too.

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[User Picture]From: sdn
2005-07-11 10:07 pm (UTC)

Re: Not an Austen fan ...

To what degree did you think you were reading in a stereotyped male way...the who, what, where, when

woo! i am a stereotyped man!
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[User Picture]From: frandowdsofa
2005-07-11 10:51 pm (UTC)
I appreciate that you tried hard with something so alien. I'm intrigued about how some people who like SF (especially hard SF) very much have a lot of problems dealing with literature that IS actually alien, in a way SF can never be by design. What's going to happen when the Real Aliens come?

Austen is easier for me in a lot of ways - I'm a woman, I'm older, I've read a lot of earlier literature and know something about the historical and sociological contexts. And I'm just old enough to remember when some of the issues facing Our Heroine were still real things that real women had to cope with. There are friends of mine today who still have to live with choices they were forced to make in similar situations.

John and I have a perpetual debate about this type of material, he just wails "But nothing HAPPENS", and I shout back "No, EVERYTHING HAPPENS !!!". He is a fan of Age of Sail stuff, Aubrey / Maturin, Master & Commander, and it is difficult for him to realise that for the women who were trapped by gender, class, and both financial and intellectual poverty, the drawing room and ballroom scenes in these novels are as breath-taking climactic, and vitally important, as rounding the Horn or taking on a French ship of the line were for their male counterparts. Our Heroine's second chance and how she finally manages to grasp it involved tactics to rival Nelson's breaking the line at Trafalgar, and although the ending is obvious, or at least looked-for, it is the struggle both against and toward it that is the depth of the book.

There was a BBC version of Persuasion with Amanda Root and Ciarán Hinds, broadcast about ten years ago. There is one pivotal scene where Anne is out walking with a group, and they meet the Croft's carriage in a lane. Wentworth ensures that it is Anne who accepts the proferred space in the carriage, and hands her up into it. This is the first time they have touched since their separation eight years before, and even though they are both wearing gloves and nothing is said, the impact of that touch took my breath away, and I would say it is The Most Erotic Moment in TV History. And you only get that level of erotica with that level of sexual and social constraint.

If you do want to understand more about the contexts and behaviours, and someone is going to bitchslap me for this, but I don't care, read some Georgette Heyer regency romances. They are packed full of modern sensibilities and modern women characters (well, mid-20th century), they are simple plots and quick reads, but they were well-researched and quite often deal with people pitchforked into new levels of society and having to cope with new rules, language, and expectations. So there's lots of explanations and demonstrations of what happens when you break the rules. And quite a lot about the male world of the time, which Austen doesn't cover well.

If you hadn't read anything else, I would recommend looking at some earlier Austen which is brighter, the protagonists tend to be younger and more hopeful, the situations are clearer. This was the last book, and it is more about the start of middle age and the triumph of common sense - more delicate and less ruthless than, say, Emma. But you said you'd tried P&P and didn't get on with that either. (If you really want to run screaming in horror from the early English novel, go try Pamela by Samuel Richardson.)
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[User Picture]From: immortalradical
2005-07-11 10:57 pm (UTC)
try Pamela by Samuel Richardson

You hate him, don't you?

(Excellent explanation of why Austen did and continues to have a hold on people and critics, by the way. :))
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[User Picture]From: brixtonbrood
2005-07-11 11:32 pm (UTC)

An actual Austen fan here

Where to start?
I was staggered that you were having so much trouble with Austen's prose, which I find very clear, and certainly no more difficult than Strange and Norrell. I know that some people have problems with pre-Dickens prose, but generally assumed that they were just a bit dim. Then I realised exactly why my comprehension of the idiom of the period is so much superior to yours - I have read all of Georgette Heyer's 30-odd Regency romances, most of them two or three times. So much for my sense of cultural superiority. Seriously, I'd recommend the Heyer Method, what you lose in Dyson Spheres you gain in crossword solutions (any word that isn't a stage in the life-cycle of the salmon is probably a 19th century carriage), and of course the ability to skim read Austen. Maybe I'm not serious, but an ability to read pre-1850 prose has a number of advantages. Austen-shmausten, but Hume? Gibbon? Adam Smith? Tristram Shandy? Jane Eyre? Not Frankenstein obviously, only Brian Aldiss has ever liked that, and he's lying.
I would love to be able to defend Persuasion in depth, but unfortunately my New Year resolution only to read previously unread books prevented me from re-reading it (that and the eight weeks it took me to finish bloody River of Gods). Also it's not my favourite - what on earth possessed you to pick it, it's terribly lacking in sympathetic characters. Anne is deeply wet, and Ciaran Hinds (or whatever his name is) takes the strong silent thing a bit far - women swoon over Darcy because they get the omniscient view of him falling like a felled redwood for Elizabeth throughout the book, but Persuasion never gives you that, which gets a bit depressing.
I think you're demanding too much of Austen on the characterisation of Sir Walter. Some of her characters have their development fleshed out, but a book in which you had a full explanation of how everybody got to be how they are would be appallingly schematic and not true to life as we experience it - it has to be permissible for some of the major background characters just to be strongly drawn grotesques.
The lack of distinction between different characters' voices is essentially your problem (as a twentyfirst century person with little background in the prose of the 18 whatevers) not Austen's - but I think you knew that. Himself claims that Thackeray is much worse, having read two hundred pages of Vanity Fair without realising that there were two male and two female protagonists, rather than only one of each and a piano. Again, even if she were at fault, a lot of authors write books full of people who sound like themselves, and it's not normally considered a fatal flaw.
Could write more, must sleep, will spare you.
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[User Picture]From: brixtonbrood
2005-07-11 11:47 pm (UTC)

Re: An actual Austen fan here

I hadn't seen the posts above mentioning Heyer before I wrote about her. I sense a movement to highjack September's bookgroup coming on - Grand Sophy anyone?
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[User Picture]From: espresso_addict
2005-07-12 01:09 am (UTC)
Too tired to attempt a spirited defence of Persuasion atm, but the comma thing is just the punctuation style of the time. I first read Austen when I was under 10 and the rhythms of her writing seem more natural to me than much contemporary writing.
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[User Picture]From: coalescent
2005-07-12 07:28 am (UTC)
And that makes a lot of sense. So explain to me--why is that comma there? Why is Austen putting a pause at that point? Did people actually talk like that? Because they don't now. (Which is not to say that dialogue has to be 'realistic' or 'natural', but to me the punctuation makes Austen's dialogue read like ... I dunno. Bad acting, like the characters aren't certain of their lines).
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[User Picture]From: communicator
2005-07-12 05:32 am (UTC)
I think Jane Austen writes about the very small room for manoeuvre that an individual has in a structured society, and how intelligent people with powerful characters can achieve dominance by making the most of the tiny freedom they have. Because the rules in her society are different from our own we can feel suffocated by them, but I think in fact our society is just as tightly ordered and oppressive as hers, and we are all fighting for that patch of individuality, without degenerating into selfishness and boorishness, or being obliterated by submissivness. I suppose people who like Austen see the fight-back of the individual most clearly in her stories, and people who hate them only feel the oppression against which they are fighting back.
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[User Picture]From: coalescent
2005-07-12 07:37 am (UTC)
Yes, that's why I liked the last chapter--because suddenly there was this sense of perspective.

(Good to see you back, by the way.)
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[User Picture]From: kalorlo
2005-07-12 06:55 am (UTC)
Noooo, you all had the discussion when I wasn't looking! These are things I wrote down after reading it so I wouldn't forget - am about to have to go to work, so can't say much more atm.

I devoured the book in an evening :)

Persuasion thoughts

Beginning - hard to get into for about the first three chapters. Remember P&P being much easier. Perhaps due to lack of dialogue - not much direct dialogue in this book at all. Also perhaps because had watched TV series of P&P before reading book (I think) so had clear visuals and could 'hear' tones of voice, which maybe made it easier and more enjoyable to read at the beginning.

For some reason, mum's mention of what it was about had given me the idea it was written totally in 3rd person limited from Anne's point of view. Which was utterly wrong, but hey. Blame having not read Austen for a long time.

Story itself, I liked very much. Text has the not-quite snide observations about characters that you almost read right over, but not quite, that I find lovely and very amusing.

Bit of background babble: my dad loves Austen, and rereads all the books every couple of years or so, sitting grinning to himself. They fit his sense of humour wonderfully, and I have a very similar one.

The ending: Eeeee! So lovely! And happy and *sniff* and I shall be very girly now. Was glad that the putting off telling Lady Russell about Mr Elliot didn't cause any huge problems/misunderstandings/getting there just too late to prevent disaster, since that happens far too often.

Did find the falling ill of Laura to be a rather familiar way of introducing drama/getting people to move about, but I suppose in the circumstances being written about, that was one of the few things that could do this.
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[User Picture]From: white_hart
2005-07-12 07:02 am (UTC)
*Smacks coalescent repeatedly round the head with a copy of Gilbert and Gubar's The Madwoman in the Attic.

Leaving aside my bogglement at how you can find Austen's prose difficult (I find her *so* much easier to read than pretty much all modern stuff, which I appear to be almost unable to get though without reading each sentence three times; then again, I'm a big semi-colon user myself; indeed, my semi-colon use increases phenomenally when I'm reading Austen) I do think you've missed the point. Which is, broadly speaking, that the lives of middle and upper-class English women at the time were so narrow that all the great questions of their lives were decided by this round of dinner-parties, rural dances and taking tea. (Actually, an interesting parallel with greengolux's recent post about how the 'big questions' seem to change with age; I guess the key issue here is being able to grasp how the 'big questions' change in relation to time and situation.)

She doesn't write sweeping epics, and is of her time, which was a time when 'literature', in English at least, didn't really exist. 'Literature' was the Iliad, the Odyssey, the Aeneid. Austen was writing pleasant diversions for young ladies, and I'm sure would have been dumbfounded at the thought that people would still be reading her books two hundred years later. She wouldn't have had the self-consciousness of being 'a writer' that might have led her to pass conscious comment on her society, and she probably lacked the awareness of societal differences even to really comprehend how such a thing might have been done. What we learn about her age is shown, not told.

Re characters; yes, she has a lot of 'flat' characters (I assume you're familiar with the flat/round distinction?). And a lot of the 'flat' characters are just there for comedy value/plot necessity. Some of them strike me as being slightly barbed portraits of people, or at least types, who Austen had met. A hundred years before Freud, of course, motivation and the workings of the mind were less thought of than they are now.
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[User Picture]From: coalescent
2005-07-12 07:26 am (UTC)
then again, I'm a big semi-colon user myself; indeed, my semi-colon use increases phenomenally when I'm reading Austen

Oh, I like semicolons. I think they are wonderful things. But, you know, everything in moderation. :)

I do think you've missed the point. Which is, broadly speaking, that the lives of middle and upper-class English women at the time were so narrow that all the great questions of their lives were decided by this round of dinner-parties, rural dances and taking tea.

No, I did get that. Someone elsethread suggested that maybe the reason many modern (Western) readers don't get a lot out of Austen is, in some ways, because she wrote the books. She wrote them, and things changed, and now they're not needed in the way they were. Maybe. I dunno.

What we learn about her age is shown, not told.

Right. I had a whole other argument with Dan about this a few days ago--about what constitutes 'showing' and what constitutes 'telling'. I consider Persuasion to be a book that is almost entirely telling, with almost no showing. We are told what the characters think, constantly, and if The Narrator disagrees with them it is made damn clear. What we learn about her age is implicit, because it's her assumptions that govern her writing, but I don't think she shows much, because to me that implies deliberate intent.
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[User Picture]From: kalorlo
2005-07-12 08:25 am (UTC)
Oh,and about these two:

("With regard to Captain Wentworth, though Anne hazarded no enquiries, there was voluntary information sufficient"--sufficient for what?) or uneven ("Anne's only surprise was, that affairs should be in forwardness enough for Henrietta's wedding-clothes to be talked of"--what on earth is that comma doing there? She can't really mean for us to pause at that point in the sentence, surely).


1. Voluntary information sufficient for her to hear about how he was and what he'd been doing without having to ask questions herself.

2.You pause exactly there - the voice is fairly considered and deliberate, and the "was" is slightly drawn out. It works for me :)

I think I mentioned in my lj straight after reading it that I only had problems with the language right at the beginning, and that was partly because of the lack of direct speech for the first three chapters or so.

One of the things I love about her writing is the way certain characters can be thoroughly insulted by others and don't even realise it.
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[User Picture]From: rparvaaz
2005-07-12 08:51 am (UTC)
One of the things I love about her writing is the way certain characters can be thoroughly insulted by others and don't even realise it.

*g*

Heyer doesthat rather well too. Have you read anything by her?
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[User Picture]From: snowking
2005-07-12 09:09 am (UTC)
You really don't deal with writing styles slightly out of the "norm", do you? See Grimwood, Jon Courtenay.

My thoughts: Pride & Prejudice is funny, Persuasion is not. Of course, wrongheads argue that satire doesn't need to be funny but if you're going to be writing eejit chracters to show off eejit preoccupations, best to make it so I laugh rather than grind my teeth.

I plan to read some Dickens soon, Niall. Care to join me? :P
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[User Picture]From: coalescent
2005-07-12 09:23 am (UTC)
You really don't deal with writing styles slightly out of the "norm", do you? See Grimwood, Jon Courtenay.

Fair point. And yet I have no problem with 'He doesn't know which one of us I am these days, but they know one truth', or stuff like Alan DeNiro's short stories (or even Ulysses). Weird.

Care to join me?

I think I'll pass. :p
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[User Picture]From: blue_condition
2005-07-12 10:01 am (UTC)
I tried. Oh Lord, I tried, but I ran out of steam and motivation about 2/3 of the way through. Normally if I get past halfway in a novel it means I'll finish it, even if it causes me physical pain, but the flatness of tone and the inconsequentiality of the events turned me right off.

Something I didn't know before reading it was that Persuasion was published posthumously. In places it felt like an unfinished draft where dialogue and character and colour was going to be dropped in - as it was, it felt like Olaf Stapledon doing a comedy of manners - there was a chill to it that isn't there in P&P or Emma. Persuasion is charmless, something the Austens that I've finished aren't.

There were no characters I liked in it. In fact, I'll rephrase that - in the conventional sense, there were no characters in it. Wentworth is the only person doing anything, and even that's not much - even by Austen's vicarage tea standards.

I don't have a particular soft-spot for Austen - I can see that she's important, but on the whole I'm not desperately interested in the "problems" her books portray or the milieu in which they operate. Give me the thud and blunder of the battlefield over the swish of crinolines any day . But in most of her other books she's good at what she does (it's just something I don't groove unto) - there's an economy, a deftness in her writing that just isn't there in Persuasion. She tells you things through little details, overheard snippets of conversation, asides... this is heavy-handed, and you can sense the author offscreen moving the chess pieces around.

There was one line I did love: Wentworth's chapter-closing "Something a little inferior I shall of course put up with, but it must not be much."
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[User Picture]From: espresso_addict
2005-07-12 01:20 pm (UTC)
Give me the thud and blunder of the battlefield over the swish of crinolines any day.

Crinolines weren't invented till 1856.
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[User Picture]From: chance88088
2005-07-12 10:32 am (UTC)
I guess I'm one of the few who found the book really readable. I enjoyed a number of the supporting characters - Anne's sisters were such shallow social climbers they were fun. And I wish there'd been a whole book on Mrs. Clay's efforts to bag herself a husband. Unfortunately Anne is such a tedious self-sacrificing bore that I kept hoping she was going to get trampled by a horse.
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[User Picture]From: blue_condition
2005-07-12 12:05 pm (UTC)
Off-topic, but that icon looks too much like George Burns for comfort. ;P
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[User Picture]From: veggiesu
2005-07-12 08:53 pm (UTC)
I enjoyed reading Persuasion, although I prefer Pride and Prejudice.
I understand from a quick skim of this thread (and from watching as immortalradical's brain collapsed) that you have a problem with the grammar. I have to say, I didn't. Austen's writing is, if anything, far mor natural than writing typically is today. The sentences that you stumble over, continually asking "what's that comma there for? Are we really supposed to pause there?" make much more sense if you saty them out loud, as if someone were describing a scene to you verbally. Yes, you are supposed to pause there. Sometimes Austen uses a comma or a semi-colon to separate a sub-clause that an infomal writer today might "put into qoutes", or Capitalise Unecessarily to make the point that The Emphasis Is Different For This Bit. Really works much better if you imagine it spoken (naturally, not as if from a script). But I guess that as long as you can wrap your head around a much freer and less constrainted writing style, you're going to mmiss the point of the story.
Ah, yes; the story. Well, I know you thought it obvious; you'd worked out what was going to happen from a few chapters in. Here's the thing, I knew before I picked the book up what was going to happen. Thwarted Love; a dash of Comedy of Manners, some angst, some humour, and It All Works Out OK In The End. I new this, because I knew it was written by Austen. That's what she wrote. Now, you could make a case that she wrote social satire, mocking those who placed rank and privilege ahead of manners and behaviour; she wrote about a woman's place in society, the "gilded cage" (for want of a less cliched expression) that trapped women of good birth. You could argue that she exposed the hypocrisy at the heart of "civilised" society, and that she clearly placed intelligence and wit ahead of money or status. But she also wrote simplistic romances, where true love conquers all, and the bad guy never wins. I'm sorry if all you saw in Persuasion was the latter, because there's a good deal of all of the rest of it in there too.
I said that I preferred Pride and Prejudice; and this comes back to something you've highlighted elsethread - there's far too much telling, and not enough showing. In P&P, Austen rather more often allows her characters to speak for themselves. Literally - there's far more dialogue in P&P. I found Wentworth to be poorly characterised, in particular he stands in poor comparison to Darcy. I got very little sense of the man - again, possibly becuase there's so little dialogue, and the narrative is told from Anne's perspective. Anne herself is far less to my taste than Lizzie Bennet; even Sir Walter is less of a contra-indication than Mrs Bennet, and is therefore simply an embarrasment, rather than an obstacle to happiness. P7P has a lightness that Persuasion lacks, and is the better for it.

But, I enjoyed it. I'm sorry you didn't. The cynic in me might suggest that next time you don't take your reading suggestions from fictional SF fans :-p
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[User Picture]From: coalescent
2005-07-12 08:59 pm (UTC)
The cynic in me might suggest that next time you don't take your reading suggestions from fictional SF fans :-p

I didn't. Grigg's favourite was Northanger Abbey. :-p
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