Author’s note: this piece is not about the new movie. I have some thoughts about the movie, but in an effort to draw attention to the greatness of the novel, I’m exploring that here. If you enjoyed the movie, I hope you’ll try the book — but understand that it might be quite different!
Netflix recently released a new adaptation of Jane Austen’s Persuasion. The novel is not as well known as Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility, but it remains a quiet favorite of many. The main character, Anne Elliot, is as admirable as characters come in books. She endures the ridiculous, vain members of her family with commendable patience, serving them and carrying on with her duties. She bears great grief over the loss of her mother and the end of a potential love affair seven years past, but she endures with kindness nevertheless.
The novel’s title is Persuasion because there are so many instances of people being persuaded by others, for better or for worse. Sometimes our advice to others is a help to them; sometimes our advice to others leads to their downfall. Here lies the novel’s first, most obvious lesson: we best be careful before we speak — and before we listen.
But the question was raised in our most recent book club discussion — would this book have been better-entitled Patience? Karen Swallow Prior based her chapter in On Reading Well on the virtue of patience around the “Longsuffering Anne” of Persuasion. Dr. Prior reminds us that “Because Anne suffers virtuously, she doesn’t let her pain cause her to turn inward upon herself. Rather, her patient bearing of suffering allows her to recognize the suffering of others.”
Anne endures so much and does so quietly. In contrast, her family members demonstrate foolish pride and vanity. How are pride and patience opposed to one another, and how can we kill foolish pride to awaken patience in our hearts?
“The Elliot pride” is regarded as the chief vice of the family; Anne’s father Sir Walter Elliot is one of our primary examples. His vanity means that he has an enormous number of mirrors in his room. We first meet Sir Walter as he pores over the book listing the family’s titles and ranking. He insists that there are certain women who ought not visit him in the mornings, as they look terrible in the harsh morning light. When the family is forced to move due to his overspending, he welcomes the chance to make new connections with people of greater social standing.
Mary, Anne’s younger sister, is also reported by others to have the Elliot pride. Mary is so self-absorbed that she usually is able to make someone else’s misfortune nothing more than an upsetting turn of events for her. Her child falls and is seriously injured; in response, she is resentful that an important dinner date might be missed. She must be included in everything, and she is convinced that people, including her husband and her sister, think nothing of her.
Pride, we hear CS Lewis say in his masterpiece Mere Christianity, is chief among the vices:
According to Christian teachers, the essential vice, the utmost evil, is Pride. Unchastity, anger, greed, drunkenness, and all that, are mere fleabites in comparison: it was through Pride that the devil became the devil: Pride leads to every other vice: it is the complete anti-God state of mind.
Pride gets no pleasure out of having something, only out of having more of it than the next man. We say that people are proud of being rich, or clever, or good-looking, but they are not. They are proud of being richer, or cleverer, or better-looking than others. If someone else became equally rich, or clever, or good-looking there would be nothing to be proud about. It is the comparison that makes you proud: the pleasure of being above the rest. Once the element of competition has gone, pride has gone.
What is the “anti-God” part of pride? Pride causes us to make ourselves the center of our own story. Instead of playing a role against a larger plotline of the Lord’s story, we are constantly measuring how it’s going for us, and us alone. We are the main character, the starring role, the essential one. Our position must advance. Said briefly, we put ourselves in God’s place. The goal is our story, not His.
Here we see Mary’s and Sir Walter’s clamoring for position and rank. How will things turn out for them? — this is their chief concern. The Elliots strove for greater prominence, greater status, and greater attractiveness than everyone around them. They wanted “more of” anything than the next person. Rather than lifting others up, they stepped on others on their way to the top.
In contrast, Anne abides. She does not strive for position or prominence. Her patience is misunderstood by her family as a lack of interest or ambition; she is “only Anne” to them. They are annoyed by her friendship with an impoverished schoolmate who lives in the wrong part of town. They wonder at her concern for others when she could be advancing in society.
While the family misunderstands her, she is patient with them. She clothes herself with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience. (Col. 3:12) She tends to Mary’s many imaginary maladies; she takes last place in line; she plays piano while others dance. Moreover, she mulls over difficult words when they come her way, ultimately understanding that hard words are sometimes good for our character.
If you haven’t read the book, my portrait of Anne here is perhaps making you question whether she is even likable. She seems a bit too perfect, perhaps. Indeed, CS Lewis found her to be a character “without fault.” Austen herself confessed in a letter that this heroine was “almost too good” for her. But the inward turmoil of Anne’s past decisions haunts her mind, painting an authentic, tortured portrait of a woman living with the consequences of her actions.
It is with this knowledge of past wrongs that Anne is willing to let life and Providence teach her, rather than making herself and her ambitions the center of the story. She sees how she has gone off-track in the past. Rather than forging ahead thoughtlessly, she patiently allows the circumstances to press on her in good and helpful ways, drawing forth virtue from tragedy.
In the end, because it is a Jane Austen story, Anne triumphs — at the right time, in the proper way. We see in her example that “Pride brings a person low, but the lowly in spirit gain honor.” (Prov. 29:23)