Bibliotherapy: Persuasion by Jane Austen

It was such a joy to see bibliotherapy in mainstream action recently. Philippa Perry, the psychotherapist who also does The Observer’s Agony Aunt column recommended a dose of Persuasion to one of her correspondents.

Persuasion is Jane Austen writing for grown ups. Pride and Prejudice and Emma etc are all very well but have an air of frippery and fun to them. Persuasion is very different. The protagonist, Anne Elliot is past the first flush of youth, for starters, and it is already assumed that she will be an old maid (the horror!). Anne is the youngest daughter in a family of otherwise ghastly people and is obviously quite the nicest of them. Her father and eldest sister care only for the trappings of aristocracy, prestige and being seen with the ‘right people’, and her other sister Mary is a hypochondriac who relies on Anne to help with the household and children every time she feels ill. (I don’t know what Jane A had against people called Mary but her characters with the same name are often quite trying to their families but fun to play in adaptations.)

Even Anne’s great friend, Lady Russell, has acted against her, and here we come to the persuasion part. Eight years before, Lady Russell among others, persuaded Anne not to marry the man she loved, and who has just returned from sea. Captain Wentworth has gone away and made his fortune and his reputation and people who shunned him before now like him very much. But they also assume that Anne is no longer interested, that she is still persuaded to think as they do, that she is more useful to them as she is and that Captain Wentworth will want other women – younger, more marriageable material.

What a bunch of interfering bores. Philippa Perry recommended it to the young man who wrote to her because his friends were trying to persuade him to dump his girlfriend, who he liked very much, because she only worked part time and didn’t seem to be very ambitious. They were both in their early twenties. What horrible pressure we put on people to focus on material things. Hence the prescription to read Persuasion.

It may not surprise those of you who have not read Austen’s book that Anne and Captain Wentworth do indeed end up together, despite the best efforts of practically everyone they know to f&*% this up. Although Wentworth does buy Anne a house, I have always hoped that he also took her away to tropical islands on his boat and gave her far more adventure and excitement than any of her horrible friends and family.

So what does Persuasion offer us? An insight into how to deal with superficial nonsense, proving our worth through common sense and quiet sensible action, and how much we can all appreciate each other more. But also it talks of how other people’s opinion can weigh us down and in the worst cases, cause us to do or say silly things.

And of course, it gives us one of the great love letters of English literature.

If you find yourself getting a bit down with expectations, Persuasion is a good place to start. Stick with your heart.

*The pictures above are of my framed Spineless Classics version of Persuasion (the entire text in a design appropriate to the book); my very old copy of Persuasion bought when I was 16 and embarking on my English Lit A level; and a postcard of the Cobb at Lyme Regis which is the setting for a key scene in the book.

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