At school Emma Tennant was bored by Jane Austen, but returning to Persuasion changed her mind
I had no liking for Jane Austen at all when I was young, and Persuasion seemed the most pointless of her works. St Paul's Girls' School, where I enjoyed the lessons of the English teacher Miss Jenkinson but little else, was a grim institution in the early 1950s - more Brontë than Austen - and the little piece of ivory on which the celebrated spinster wrote her tales of love and disappointment and sudden, unconvincing happiness, didn't mean anything to me.
A childhood in the rough hills of southern Scotland didn't help: there were manses, not vicarages, in the Borders, and a more outspoken democratic spirit against the feudal set-up that prevailed there. The subtleties and delicate snubs of Emma or of Lady Catherine de Burgh in Pride and Prejudice were foreign in the extreme.
Persuasion at first reading was the worst of all. I was bored by the heroine Anne Elliot, and wasn't surprised to discover that even Jane Austen had said "she is too good for me". Rightly, I felt, the creator of this dismally passive young woman suspected her readers would have no sympathy for Anne Elliot. When you're 15, Cinderella stories, too, seem hopelessly dated; and to be confronted with Elizabeth, a pantomime Ugly Sister, on the shelf and in drag, waiting for the "baronet-blood", which never came, and Mary, a constant complainer stuck in the shires with a huntin', fishin', shootin' husband, was as undesirable as having to get to know the Cinders who did all the dull jobs and was "only Anne".
The fact that a mother-figure, the less-than-interesting Lady Russell, had "persuaded" Anne eight years earlier to give up the young man with whom she had fallen in love, due to his lack of prospects, was merely pathetic. Thank God we hadn't lived then! Sailing into the exciting waters of Rebel Without A Cause and On The Waterfront, no one in Miss Jenkinson's class looked as if they cared one way or the other about the fate of Anne Elliot. Captain Frederick Wentworth, as the rejected swain had become in the intervening years, was no James Dean or Brando.
Re-reading Persuasion was an unexpectedly interesting experience. I had certainly changed my mind about Jane Austen since those school years, even going so far as to write follow-ups to Pride and Prejudice and Emma. I felt I knew Emma Woodhouse once I married at the age of 21 and came into a circle of self-satisfied young women. But Persuasion I didn't re-read, remembering all my negative feelings about the three sisters and their vain, silly father.
Then I stayed in a house where a modest set of Austen's novels stood almost out of reach on a high shelf, and I took down the last of her works, Persuasion - perhaps because it stood at the end of the row. Almost immediately I found myself in the present. I lent the book to my mother after my re-reading, and - half-jokingly - she asked whether this novel had been rewritten "to be contemporary".
Why was it that we both felt Persuasion to be so new? In my mother's case, it was the language and mode of expression that appeared utterly of the moment. Perhaps she also meant that this was the way books now should be written; that we are all tired of modernism and post-modernism, and Virginia Woolf looks jaded and out of date next to Jane Austen. "Telling a story" has become a cliché among publishers pushing for a bestseller; but this is conceivably what readers now desperately want. Tired of unreliable narrators and heartless novels that provide more entertainment for the author than the reader, there is a longing to receive news that stays news, as Ezra Pound defined literature.
My own strong reaction to the novel stemmed from Austen's depiction of society, a world of conspicuous consumption (Sir Walter Elliot cannot stand the idea of retrenching when he mismanages his finances and prefers to leave his house rather than be seen with a footman or a picture less) and his arrogant, good-looking daughter Elizabeth can't be seen without all the props, either.
Then the heir, the apparently desirable Walter William Elliot, turns out to be a fraudster with charm and plenty of victims to tell the tale. Snobbery these days is not for baronets or the peerage, but it is recognisable instantly in the Bath pump-rooms where a stifling correctness takes one straight to the New Labour elite. The values of money and keeping up appearances are identifiable at once.
And Anne, quiet, "too good Anne", can be seen as a brilliant heroine indeed when she refuses them and receives her reward in the form of Captain Frederick Wentworth.