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This eloquent wish to reside in the static, autumnal world of a romantic poem, devoid of all chance for a change or a “spring” of new life is confronted by the events that actually take place in Persuasion.
Jane Austen’s Persuasion is, in many ways, a book about the influence of literature and reading on the actual events of life.
For most of the characters that populate this novel, what they read and how they read it conveys a message about their own perception of life—their conception of past and present, as well as their relationship between reading and emotional experience.
Although England retained its monarchy, these events did irreparable damage to the old order—damage that shook the ground just enough so that the fortresses and the barricades crumbled a little and Austen could see over the edge of the world she had always known, into the expansive unknown across the sea.
As her realization of the world expanded, so too did her understanding of the power of reading and literature.
Rather, the plot of Persuasion and the revelation of the human nature that motivates many of the events in the novel contradict this idea that reading such works can create heroic people.
In keeping with the theme of Persuasion, the world projected from the pages of these books belongs to a small subset of the educated elite of Britain, and, while the practices they prescribe may be sound, the actions taken by the characters in the novel depict the inability of books to fully encompass the full spectrum of the idiosyncrasies of human nature.This depth is presented to the reader in the frightening conclusion that the world of a book is smaller than the real world.If reading is a way in which the characters in previous Austen novels come to know the world around them, order their principles, and gain sound advice, Persuasion adds a new level of urgency to this familiar problem of epistemology by telling us that the world is far more vast than any self-contained world of principals, moral convictions, history, or beautiful emotions comprised within the pages of a book.Mourning the death of his fiancée Fanny Harville, Benwick turns to reading, especially reading romantic poetry, as the best possible expression of his own grief.The “various lines which imaged a broken heart or a mind destroyed by wretchedness” are reflections of his sorrow (85).In Emma, Mansfield Park, Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, and Northanger Abbey reading, at least the reading of certain works, is a means of improvement—reading strengthens the convictions and dictates the behavior of the heroines.In Persuasion, however, reading becomes, rather than a means of improvement, a reflection—mirroring the characters’ own desires.Anne is not alone in her desire to occupy the beautiful but melancholic world created by the romantic poets.Captain James Benwick, “intimately acquainted with all the tenderest songs of the one poet, and all the impassioned descriptions of hopeless agony of the other,” similarly attempts to submerge himself in the words of the likes of Byron, Scott, and Wordsworth, and to view life only through the lens of these poets (84).After devoting so many pages to combatting the image of the novel reader as a type of female Quixote, and creating anti-romance, didactic plots to lend credibility to her genre, Austen’s final novel leaves the reader agape at the possibility that, perhaps, novels and reading can fail us.Virginia Woolf said of Persuasion that Austen “is beginning to discover that the world is larger, more mysterious, and more romantic than she had supposed.