Sunday, May 15, 2011

Forgiveness and Goodbyes: A Tribute to Jane Austen

 One of the first things I do before writing a retrospective of a Jane Austen novel, is to sit down and search the internets for reasons why other people loved the book.  It's nice to see other people's perspectives and find solidarity in the opinions we have in common.  As I began researching various views of Persuasion, I came across this- "If you've ever felt your family didn't treat you the way they should; if you've ever been misunderstood, misled, or misguided in any way, then Persuasion will speak your language.  If you've ever yielded to the opinions of others over what your heart told you to do, if you've ever given up someone because you were told you had to, if you've ever wasted even a tiny bit of this short life holding on to resentment instead of opening up to forgiveness and love, then you will get your second chance to make things right with Persuasion." If that doesn't make you jump to pick up a copy immediately, I don't know what will.

This novel was Jane Austen's last.  She died before it was ever published.  The amount of beautiful and hopeful life truths packed into only a couple hundred pages is a testament not only to Jane's prowess for understanding human nature, but to how much a writer grows and matures throughout her career.  This a mature story- it has a quiet hopefulness only a woman who has lived, seen, and understood could write.  It's subtle, tragic, joyous, and all together wonderful.

That quote I mentioned before really gets to the essence of this book- it's about forgiveness and second chances.  Someone told me once, about an older couple so obviously in love, yet not without their struggles and imperfections.  This person told me, "he loved her because and despite of where she came from."  This woman wasn't easy- she was hurt and broken and ill used in her past.  She was withheld the love we all so much desire need as we are growing.  But this man, this loving and patient man, could see past her jagged edges and loved her in a way she had never experienced or thought possible- completely and unconditionally.

That was the real life love story I was thinking of while reading Persuasion.  Anne Elliot is over looked, mistreated and abused by her family.  Jane writes about it in such a way that it makes you heart break for Anne when she is dismissed time after time and made to feel insignificant and voiceless.  The man of her dreams- the wonderful and gentle Mr. Wentworth- stands before her, asking her to walk with him forever.  She is forced to say no.  She is so controlled by her family- her vain, judgmental, awful family that think Wentworth lacks both breeding and wealth  to marry an Elliot. This is where the real life example and the literature diverge. Mr. Wentworth- being young and passionate and human- leaves, hurt and confused beyond consolation.

It's here we get another life lesson from Mamma Jane.  Holding on to things- resentment, betrayal, anger sadness, hurt, and pain- does absolutely no one any good  When you do that, hold on to toxic things that spread and pollute, your perceptions of things will eventually become malignant.  You can so easily miss the forgiveness standing right in front of you, screaming and begging you to snatch it up and hold it close.

After many years, Mr. Wentworth and Anne are eventually reunited in true Jane fashion- through a series of coincidences.  He is now a captain in the Navy, just as handsome, and much more wealthy.  She is still under her family's abusive thumb and still desperately in love with Captain Wentworth.  Despite all logic and reason, she secretly hopes, in that palce where all woman hope for impossible things, that he will have forgiven her.  He hasn't.  Time has not healed all his wounds and his embitterment and resentment is palpable.  The only thing that hurts more than losing your first love is having their pain and hatred paraded in front of you over and over and over again.

I'm telling you, this story is seriously heart breaking.

But, thankfully, it's about forgiveness- no the lack-there-of.  And the all-to-relatable pain we witness Anne having to endure make her and Captain Wentworth's reconciliation all the more beautiful.  Wentworth writes Anne, inarguably, the greatest letter in the history of the post.  He is honest and apologetic and vulnerable- but more importantly, he finally forgives her.  He let's go of all that betrayal and ego.  Once his malignant perception of her is is cut away, he can finally see what's truly in front of him: a girl who was never given a chance or taught to fight for what she wants; a girl begging for love and respect; a girl he never stopped loving, not even for a minute.  And so, he loves her- because of and despite of where she came from.  That is the most miraculous kind of love, because it rests entirely in forgiveness.

I started this off telling you why someone else loves Persuasion.  Now let me tell you why I love it.  I love it because it's about a lonely girl who's misunderstood and undervalued.  It's about her chance to redeem all of that- to become bold and heard and loved.  It's about letting go so you can let someone in. It's about freeing yourself, about forgiving people- accepting the burden of pain they've placed on you and no longer blaming them for it.  This story is about Hope.

I could end this post with that- in fact, that was a right fine ending and I debated whether or not I should continue on.  But the authoress that has taught me so much deserves a few lines more.  This post isn't just about forgiveness and hope- it's about saying goodbye.  Persuasion may have taken me the longest to finish.  I would read only a few pages at a time- drinking in those final words the way you would with an ill friend during her last days.  Eventually I read that final sentence on the final page of her final novel, and my little hand was reluctantly pried away from her weathered, grandmotherly grasp.

Jane Austen fans are easy to poke fun at.  On the surface they we seem positively out of touch with reality.  But really, when you go through this experience, when you let Jane guide you through the murky waters of the human condition (armed with a subtle wit and a bonnet), something happens.  You are suddenly more in touch with your reality than you ever thought possible.  Looking back through my posts about Jane, I am amazed at the lessons I unearthed and the parts of myself I discovered.  And all of them so personally and providentially relevant- it creates quite the emotional response.  And, embarrassing as it is to admit, I am currently fighting back tears as I write this, surrounded by people in a coffee shop.  These tears, this emotion, is about loving a woman who lived decades before myself and yet somehow reached through the ether to touch my life now.  It's about saying goodbye to a friend and accepting the sadness that they will never speak new words into your life again.

Except, here's the amazing thing about the written word- the magic Jane and I both hold so dear- her words will never go away.  They are printed and permanent. I may never read anything new from Jane, but the messages she speaks into my life are and will be endless.  It's not really goodbye when her presence and influence are as infinite as I am.

I'll take this last bit of space to say thank you to you, Jane.  Thank you for teaching me, challenging me, entertaining me, and inspiring me.  Yours are not simple love stories- they are complex portraits of the fragile and diverse human spirit.  In part, it will be for you and what you stood for that I pour myself into observation and understanding.  It will be for you that I mix universal truths with clever wit and poetry.  It will be for you that I seek to inspire, encourage, and befriend with my words.  In short, it is because of you that I will write.


  1. well said, miss sarah. a toast to you and jane.

  2. Thanks for your comments emily! You're the BEST!

  3. Gah! Love it! I've loved all the truths you've found in Austen...this sounded like a perfect goodbye. Love it, love it.

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