by Jane Austen

I’ve read all of Austen’s novels more than once over the years, but I can always read them again.  This time, I read Persuasion as a read-along with an online book club called Unputdownables, joining in a monthlong discussion with people I didn’t know.  An interesting new way to experience a familiar book.

So many of the other readers were critical of Anne. They described her as “dull” and “boring”. They wanted to see her behave in a more defiant and take-charge style. Why doesn’t she just go marry Captain Wentworth and to heck with anyone else’s opinion? — they wondered. And the same to Wentworth himself. What’s he waiting for?

I felt a desire to rush in on Anne’s side. When they found her impossible to identify with, I felt myself in her place. I felt that Anne was the kind of person I’d want for a friend. I only wish I had her patience and good nature. I realized, as I defended her and offered explanations for her, that this isn’t the first time I’ve found myself in this position. A character who strikes other readers as bland or meek often strikes me as the most “real” person in the book. This is the character whose thoughts and feelings and decisions make the most sense to me, the one whose interior life seizes my imagination most powerfully.

One of the first books we read in Amanda’s book club, a couple of years ago, was Angry Housewives Eating Bonbons. Among the questions posed for discussion was “Which character was most interesting to you?” Almost all the other women in the group talked about Merit, about her growth and change, about her acts of rebellion. I was the only one who loved Skip. In response, most of the other members said, “She’s nice, but she isn’t interesting. She’s just what she is, there’s not much of a story to her.” Maybe I’m attracted to characters who are just what they are, whose integrity is their strongest feature.

Anne Elliot is a character of quiet integrity. I have to keep insisting that she is not actually a meek, pliable doormat.  While she’s not an openly assertive person, she remains sure of who she is and what she thinks. Some people have such shallow and unformed convictions that they have no truths to uphold or betray. Anne knows her own mind. Once in her life, disastrously, she was false to her own inner conviction. Her regret is so strong because she knows that she betrayed herself. If she was really as big a waffler as all that, she’d never have been sure whether she was right or wrong. But Anne knows very well that she made a terrible mistake by betraying herself.

Ever since then, she has kept the knowledge of that mistake as part of her character. She won’t betray herself again. This doesn’t mean that she won’t surrender to other people’s wishes to keep the peace in trifling matters, like seating arrangements at parties, or carriage assignments on road trips. It does mean that she will hold firmly to her own convictions in any matter of true integrity, like keeping up her friendship with Mrs. Smith or refusing Charles Musgrove’s marriage proposal.