With a 3-book Austen giveaway pack thanks to Allen & Unwin
I try not to play favourites with my babies but… PersuasionRama is the most special of all the special editions I’ve put together so far. The quality of the novel, and of the conversations and reflections it led me to, have had a real cumulative impact on me. Here’s what’s going on this week:
An interview between me and Ruth Wilson, author of The Jane Austen Remedy
An essay from me about reading Persuasion for the first time, chewing on the privilege of love, risk-taking, and regret
The link to join tonight’s 6.30pm livestream with Bridie Jabour as we watch the new Netflix adaptation of Persuasion for the first time, then discuss it together, with drinks, immediately afterwards
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An interview with Ruth Wilson
As Ruth Wilson approached her 70th birthday she was experiencing troubling physical and psychological symptoms. The vertigo led to a diagnosis of Meniere’s disease and medication, but the repeating nightmares about losing her voice led her to ask herself some extremely difficult questions. You know, the really big questions: Who am I? What do I want to do with my life? Is this where I thought I’d end up? She didn’t recognise herself in photos. She was ‘tired of being surrounded by people whose values I could no longer pretend to share.’ (Very Anne Elliot, but we’ll get to that later.) The introduction to The Jane Austen Remedy sets out these deliberations in brief yet beautiful detail; her realisations about her life trajectory are communicated to the reader in striking clarity and devastating honesty.
So, as the kids these days would say, 60-something Wilson proceeds to ‘blow up her life’. A surprise inheritance allows her to purchase a cottage in the Southern Highlands, and she leaves everything and everyone behind. The project? To read. To read herself into being. She thought of recovery as ‘a rehabilitation of my reading life,’ and that, for many reasons she sets out, she would start with Jane Austen’s six novels.
After fifty years of marriage, it was a difficult, complicated and emotionally painful decision. My husband was, I think, bewildered. I had never discovered a way to convey to him the intensity of my own feelings, the waves of frustration and regret that swept over me periodically, strong feelings that men are prone to dismiss as female hysteria…
I don’t want to pull too many quotes out of Wilson’s careful and generous contextualisation of her husband and marriage being representative of another generation and time. But it’s fair to say that as a young reading woman she had dreamed of a certain quality of ‘companionship’ in marriage, and that this ‘earlier optimism’ was ‘sorely tested’. She writes about living in her cottage:
I lived alone but was less lonely than I had been earlier in my life. People made judgements; I didn’t heed them. Some asked questions; I didn’t answer them… for the first time in my mature adult life I took a risk.
Courage comes in many shapes and forms. I was deeply affected by Wilson’s audacity and I believe it is ageism pure-and-simple that prevents the wider public from hearing of more stories like hers. Less value is ascribed to an older heroine, but a heroine she is. In some ways it’s easier to ‘blow up your life’ when you’re young and feel like hundreds of doors and windows still stretch on in front of you, some to close, some to open. For Wilson to have been standing at the precipice of her eighth decade and make such bold decisions is huge. She claimed her right to independence and self-discovery. ‘I didn’t guess that, by re-reading Austen’s fiction at age seventy, I would be consoled in ways that would lead me to the best years of my life,’ she writes.
The Jane Austen Remedy is structured around Austen’s six works, and it feels fitting that Persuasion comes last. It is a story of second chances. The story of a woman who has learned much about love and about, basically, sticking to her guns. In talking to a friend who is re-reading Persuasion with her, Wilson says of herself:
I short-changed myself when I decided to stay within the bounds of convention. I settled for life in a comfort zone, only to find myself spinning out of control. Instead of securing my place in the world, I found myself in danger of falling off the edge. The sense of disappointment in myself and in what I was getting out of life was overwhelmingly debilitating.
Anne Elliot struggles to ‘retrieve her own will’. She has lived for many years as ‘only Anne,’ ignored by most. Wilson writes that Persuasion is ‘a novel that dived deep into the consciousness of a heroine whose subdued passion sustains her independence of spirit and moral principle.’ This is a contributing reason to why, apparently, many women find that as they age they are drawn to Persuasion more than Austen’s other works. It certainly hit me a lot more deeply than I anticipated, but we’ll get to that later.
Wilson began her PhD on Austen when she was 84, and this September she will celebrate her 90th birthday. I loved her book and I loved talking with her. I hope you are as moved by her courage and intelligence as I am.