Friday, September 29, 2006


From Anthony Lane’s “An Englishman Abroad,” in the May 22, 2006 issue of The New Yorker
“My abiding memory of Patrick Leigh Fermor comes from Crete, eight years ago. We had spent time there, and I wanted to know how he would be retuning to the mainland: a flight to Athens, presumably, followed by a taxi to the Mani. On the contrary, he said; he would board the overnight ferry. I offered at least to book him a cabin, since the night could be cold. He smiled and replied that he would prefer a chair on deck, adding, “My dear boy, I have a bottle of red wine and a copy of Persuasion. What more could I possibly need?”

That does sound like a pleasant way to spend an evening, though at some point about midway through the bottle, I’d likely realize that I’d been reading the same page for the past fifteen minutes and decide it was time to watch the suddenly blurry waves.

If I had my choice, though—or my beautifully designed Jane Austen omnibus edition—I’d probably choose Pride and Prejudice (1813) instead. Not that Persuasion (1817) isn’t a pleasant, at times lovely book, full of the perceptiveness, humor, and irony that are the reason I read Jane Austen—but in Persuasion, the characters are a little less interesting, the plot a little slower and less intricate, even the narration a bit less lively.

The main reason that Persuasion suffers in the comparison, though, is because it has far less dialogue than Pride and Prejudice. Dialogue is Austen’s greatest strength, because that’s where she can best demonstrate both her understanding of character and her willingness to trust her reader to see past her characters’ statements to the intentions and evasions beyond them. She also mines that disjunction for much of her gentle humor; she works with the ironies of conversation with the same skill that Wodehouse works with its absurdities. Having less dialogue in Persuasion necessarily leaves it less wryly funny than Pride and Prejudice

To be fair to Austen, I should point out that Persuasion was written in the last years of her brief life, when she was ill; doubtless it would be far more polished had she lived longer. Even unpolished, Persuasion contains such gems as this exchange among Ann, the heroine, her superficial sister, and her sister’s kind-hearted but non-intellectual husband:
”I think Lady Russell would like him. I think she would be so much pleased with his mind, that she would very soon see no deficiency in his manner.”

“So do I, Anne,” said Charles. “I am sure Lady Russell would like him. He is just Lady Russell’s sort. Give him a book, and he will read all day long.”

“Yes, that he will!” exclaimed Mary, tauntingly. “He will sit poring over his book, and not know when a person speaks to him, or when one drops one’s scissors, or any thing that happens. Do you think Lady Russell would like that?”
I suppose that complaining that one Jane Austen novel isn’t as much fun as another is a lot like complaining about having the wrong flavor of ice cream. After all, there is no bad ice cream. I imagine Patrick Leigh Fermor would agree with me.

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