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“Captain Wentworth at the age of thirty two could have his pick of the young ladies of the district, while Anne Elliot at twenty seven, must quietly accept her place on the shelf.”
Eight years have passed since Anne Elliot’s engagement to Frederick Wentworth ended in bitterness. Spinsterhood and a life of obscurity are her daily reality, and then she is struck a powerful blow: the loss of the Elliot’s ancestral home, her beloved Kellynch Hall. Having squandered much of their wealth, the aristocratic Elliots are forced to move out and hand control over to the unpretentious Admiral Croft, and this just as a newly wealthy Captain Wentworth returns to the area.
MUCH CAN HAPPEN TO A MAN IN EIGHT YEARS:
Wentworth has been at sea, fighting the war against France. He returns a much harder man, for whom marriage is no longer about love but about his comfort and convenience. He is determined to show those who humiliated him just how much times have changed.
WHILE LITTLE CHANGES FOR THOSE WHO REMAIN BEHIND:
For Anne Elliot the years have taken their toll. A faded beauty, she is frequently ignored or passed over as she silently bears witness to the lives of others. Everyone around her is comfortable, used to the old Anne…
But what would happen if all that were to change?
“But to what purpose Disturbing the Dust on a bowl of rose-leaves I do not know.” – TS Eliot
Last year I had the pleasure of reading Ivy may Stuart’s debut JAFF novel, Becoming Elizabeth, and since then I have been looking forward to reading more stories from her. This latest release from her, Disturbing the Dust, is a retelling of Jane Austen’s Persuasion, which stays close to canon in many aspects and which also uncovers some new layers of the evolving emotional journey that develops between Anne Elliot and Captain Wentworth. Since I recently reread Persuasion, I felt that I could enjoy a retelling that allowed me to explore some new emotional terrain and Ms. Stuart’s retelling certainly fit that bill!
This retelling opens up as Captain Wentworth returns from is service in the British Navy, where he has earned a fortune that will set him up nicely for the remainder of his life. As he attempts to use similar fortitude to convince himself that he is no longer in love with Anne Elliot, he soon finds himself in her company and seeking ways to hurt her in the manner that she hurt him nearly a decade ago. Yet Anne hasn’t truly lost her “bloom,” and it’s only a matter of time before the former couple finds themselves drawn to one another once again.
In a story that unfolds similar to Austen’s, Ms. Stuart’s writing fills in some of the spaces left by Austen to explore some the secondary relationships in this story, as well as shedding some additional light on the relationships that receive less attention in canon. One example is this scene where Captain Wentworth shares his heart with his brother’s wife:
Eleanor Wentworth put her sewing aside and, sinking back in her chair, looked directly at her brother-in-law.
“Without boring you, Frederick, I must put into words what I think you have already sensed. It is a sad fact that most of us live much of our lives caught up in ourselves. We are all naturally arrogant and so we are largely indifferent to qualities that might exist in others but not in ourselves. Very often, this state of mind extends even to those that we love the most. Our arrogance leads us to form inaccurate preconceptions about them that are based only upon what we know (which is really only ourselves). But if we want happiness then we must accept and honour the differences in each other. We must allow our partner in life their own autonomy and live our lives rejoicing daily in the mutual discovery of our differences; rather than constantly trying to alter one another into something that is more like ourselves.”
There’s also a good deal of time spent developing the interiority of Anne and Captain Wentworth’s characters, as Ms. Stuart delves into their own personal evolutions and explores some of the growth and changes in their feelings and the events during the last eight years of their lives that have shaped them into the people that they are today. I enjoyed the way that Ms. Stuart sketched some of the reasons for their past actions and she did a great job keeping their characters very true to canon. In this example, Captain Wentworth examines his current actions:
His stubborn self-deception had led him to encourage affection and admiration where there was no possibility of his returning them in equal measure. He knew now that he could not contemplate marriage to someone like Louisa. He was no Charles Musgrove. He could never be happy with a superficial marriage, based largely on convenience and gratification of the senses: a marriage in which daily irritations were not ameliorated by a deep emotional connection to one’s partner.
Throughout this story, we also watch the evolution of Anne Elliot’s relationship with her own family members, as she gains confidence in herself and learns to stand her own ground in her own manner. This was also handled in a very subtle, yet realistic manner. Anne doesn’t turn into an Elizabeth Bennet, which was nice to see because that would be too out of character for her. However, she does become stronger in her convictions and less willing to be persuaded by her family and friends.
As readers know, her sister Elizabeth is not a character many readers sympathize with, and here we see Elizabeth and Anne struggle to find their own ways to happiness as each sister sees the other an obstacle to overcome, instead of as a confidante to embrace. I enjoyed the inclusion of an admirer besides Mr. Elliot, who adds humor and a bit of romantic tension to the story. Maybe Elizabeth can have her own HEA too?
Readers who love Persuasion will enjoy reconnecting with these characters in Disturbing the Dust, but they shouldn’t expect any dramatic departures from canon in this story. Ms. Stuart incorporates quotes from different stories in literature into the openings of each of her chapters, which provides a nice segway into each chapter. Her writing remains tight throughout the entire story and she does a great job retaining the tone and consistency of Austen’s storyline and her characters.
I was hoping Ms. Stuart would delve a bit more into Anne and Captain Wentworth’s past relationship, as she does provide us with a few snippets into this storyline. I have always longed to learn more details about their young love affair, but she doesn’t take us very far down that path, which disappointed me. I also felt the ending of the story was a bit too abrupt, as I would have liked more closure of this story, and I wanted some additional time exploring the new understanding between Anne and Captain Wentworth.
Persuasion has often been viewed by many readers as Austen’s most mature and emotionally compelling story. I believe readers who want to revisit the path of Anne and Wentworth’s relationship will find themselves easily engaged throughout this story. For readers who appreciate JAFF stories that strive to retain Austen’s tone as well as her characters, while at the same time delving deeper into the emotional journeys of her characters, Disturbing the Dust is a book that provides this opportunity. It’s also wonderful to see writers that I admire, such as Ms. Stuart, exploring JAFF stories outside of Pride & Prejudice.
Ivy May Stuart was born in Cape Town, South Africa. She attended school in Natal, a province of South Africa and the setting for her first novel ‘An Unreasonable Woman’. She was educated at the University of South Africa for both undergraduate and post-graduate studies and taught English and History to high school pupils. She sees those years as significant preparation for writing an historical novel.
“At the time, my students were of school-leaving age and I was alerted to the absolute lack of interest in the Women’s Rights Movement amongst young girls. A typical reaction when the topic is raised is a sort of mild embarrassment. Very few girls are aware of, or interested in the long history of the women’s movement and just how difficult the struggle has been. It frightened me to think that our hard-won rights and freedoms could be eroded if women are not vigilant. From time to time we need to be reminded just how tough life has been and can be for women.”
Thank you to Ivy May Stuart, for adding another retelling to the small, but growing collection of JAFF stories based on Persuasion. You can read excerpts from this story here too and my interview with Ms. Stuart that was posted last year.
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