Why do so many of Jane Austen’s smartest readers consider her weakest novel to be her best? Persuasion, the story of kind, helpful Anne Elliot—who made a mistake years ago and is still suffering for it when the book opens—is didactic and full of crude, overdrawn characterizations. It is also the least funny of Austen’s books. The bad characters, whether snobbish, scheming, or hypochondriacal, are unwaveringly bad. (Directed at such easy targets, satire ceases to be satire. It’s more like gawking at roadkill.) The book’s good characters are even worse: boring, smug and, after a while, downright insufferable. Writing about a rough draft of The Watsons, one of Austen’s unfinished books, Virginia Woolf said that “the stiffness and bareness of the first chapters” suggest that “she was one of those writers who lay their facts out rather baldly in the first version and then go back and back and back and cover them with flesh and atmosphere.” Woolf might have been speaking of Persuasion. Published posthumously, it has an almost skeletal feel, like an outline in which only the most salient points about each character are noted, as if Austen didn’t have time to “cover them with flesh.”
And yet many people whose taste is generally excellent—including, for instance, Slate’s own Ron Rosenbaum and the literary critics William Deresiewicz and Harold Bloom—consider Persuasion Austen’s best book. Tastes may simply differ, of course, but I have a theory: I suspect that some readers prize Persuasion because it is superficially more “serious” than Austen’s other novels. Anne Elliot, at 27, is older than her other heroines, who range from their late teens to their early 20s. Her plight is also the saddest. While Austen’s other protagonists are optimistic about their futures, by the time we meet Anne, she feels that her life has been permanently blighted. Seven years before the novel begins, she broke an engagement to the man she loved on the advice of a trusted friend, and she has pined for him ever since. Her day-to-day life as an unattached woman is dreary. She lives with her unpleasant older sister and her father, a vain, unintelligent man, vulgarly proud of his well-preserved good looks and his baronetcy. Her main solace is tending to the children of her silly, self-involved younger sister. It’s hard not to be a little moved by the barrenness of Anne’s life. Austen herself seemed to be: The mood and setting is autumnal, and the prose is more lyrical than it is in her other novels.
The somber tone, the sadness of Anne’s situation—those alone may dispose some readers toward Persuasion. Perhaps even some of Austen’s most fervent admirers are a little embarrassed by her comedies of manners and her books’ supposedly trivial subject matter, the way each one ends with the marriage of its heroine. Perhaps these readers hold up Persuasion, with its older, sadder protagonist, as a counterargument to the charge of frivolity. (Rosenbaum seems to do precisely this.) But Persuasion lacks not only the comic sparkle of Austen’s other novels. It also lacks, relatively speaking, the fineness of observation and the psychological nuance that is enough to make any book—even the fairy-tale-like love story of a teenage girl and a wealthy man—a great one.
Austen, who was born in 1775 in a Hampshire village where her father was pastor, never married, and she didn’t publish a novel until she was 35. (That was Sense and Sensibility; she didn’t sign her name to it.) She published three more before she died just six years later; two additional books were published posthumously. These six novels—as well as a few unfinished drafts and scraps of juvenilia—represent the sum of Austen’s output. But by now almost anyone who lives in any culture anywhere probably knows something about her books. They revolve, famously, around courtship. In all six books, there is scarcely a single death. Illness is rare. (The latter appears as a punishment to teach a lesson in Sense and Sensibility and a tool to bring would-be lovers together in Pride and Prejudice, when a sister’s cold throws Elizabeth into Mr. Darcy’s company.) War, poverty, injustice, and existential soul-searching are all outside their scope. Still, it’s an unsubtle reader who conflates a book’s ostensible subject with its depth. (It’s easy to imagine Pride and Prejudice’s sententious, sermon-reading Mr. Collins making that mistake.) It would be like dismissing Shakespeare as a writer of slapstick because his characters regularly cross-dress so convincingly that they aren’t recognized by their own lovers or parents. Proof of artistry is rarely located in plot summaries.
Admirers make much of Austen’s deadpan tone, her wit, and her irony, and rightly so. But hers isn’t irony for irony’s sake: Austen’s portraits of people and their milieus are animated not by satirical malice or mere eagerness to entertain but by a sense of moral urgency. With a philosophical eye, she sees through fuss and finery and self-justification. She gives us a cast of characters and then zeroes in, showing us who and what is admirable, who is flawed but forgivable, who is risible and who is truly vile. Delivered economically, her judgments are not only clever but perspicacious, humane, and, for the most part, convincing. Her real subject is not the love lives of barely post-adolescent girls, but human nature and society. Austen wrote stories that show us how we think.
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Take Emma, in which Austen is at the height of her powers as both an artist and analyst of human beings. The novel has very few obvious signifiers of “seriousness.” It’s the story of a young woman blessed with good looks, wealth, intelligence, and an adoring father; the plot revolves around Emma’s attempts to make matches among her friends and her own mild flirtation with a good-looking charmer. It ends with her marriage. Yet for all its apparent frothiness, Emma is a book about a maturing mind, and it is as devoid of melodrama as a postmodern experiment. At one point, the book even dabbles in stream-of-consciousness, with a wonderful monologue that carries the reader through the arc of a morning’s strawberry-picking expedition while deftly sending up the affectations of its speaker.
Emma, Austen tells us on the book’s first page, is in danger of “having her own way rather too much and a disposition to think too well of herself.” (Austen is perfectly willing to tell rather than show.) Nonetheless, she then proceeds to give us the world—Emma’s world, that is—from Emma’s point-of-view, deploying the free, indirect third-person, in which the voice of the character blends with that of the author. We follow Emma as she befriends the hapless Harriet Smith, then breaks up Harriet and her love interest (whom Emma deems unsuitable) and tries to find Harriet a more eligible husband. None of this proceeds according to plan, of course. Emma makes one mistake after another, badly misinterpreting some people and failing to listen to others. And yet she is so clever, so convincing, that, after a while, we begin to see the world as she does. We become complicit in her errors of perception.
So when the revelations inevitably occur, it isn’t only Emma who is surprised. We look again—and see the signs that Emma (and we ourselves) misread the first time around—they were there all along. The novel is as well-plotted as a good mystery, but the subject is subtler than that of a whodunit—and the aim is different: It’s not for the pleasure of a dramatic twist that Austen lays her trap; it’s to show us something humbling about our own vulnerability to error and misperception. In initially thinking ourselves superior to Emma, we, too, reveal a disposition to think rather too well of ourselves.
Emma is the most perfect of Austen’s novels in part because the engine of its plot doesn’t run on a single moral lesson—the twin evils of pride and prejudice, the desirability of being sometimes persuadable rather than invariably headstrong, the advantageousness of sense over sensibility. It preaches humility, but it does so humbly.