I do not worship at the shrine of Jane Austen. I do not count myself an Austenite. In fact, I needed to be persuaded of her greatness, so I took three of her novels with me on holiday. I'd read all but Mansfield Park before, but in recent years I have been badly put off revisiting the others by the commodification of JA which reduces her novels to heroes in wet shirts, pretty Hollywood heroines, a cult of Pride and Prejudice, innumerable spin-offs, and a great deal of tacky tourism.
Partly because I have been irked by the overdose of P&P and Sense and Sensibility in the media, and partly because it is a wonderfully gentle novel, I have always preferred Persuasion. So this is where I started. I knew I had yet to overcome my intense teenage dislike of Emma and my inability to get further than 50 pages into Mansfield Park, so I began in my only Jane Austen comfort zone.
I also took John Mullan's book to help me read the novels in a new way. I skipped all over it as I read the three novels, and found it entertainingly illuminating. Virginia Woolf said of Jane Austen, 'Of all great writers, she is the most difficult to catch in the act of greatness', and Mullan is particularly good at revealing her narrative techniques which are often so subtle and clever that you don't realise what she's doing and why she's so good until you have it explained to you.
I never need to be persuaded about Persuasion, though. Mullan calls it a 'melancholy novel', but here I disagree with him. It's very funny in places (I sensed JA was laughing a great deal as she wrote some parts), and sardonic in others (snobs and fools do not get off lightly). I like it because it is nowhere near as arch or as self-conscious as the earlier novels, and because Anne is a lovely, relatively plain and mature heroine with an incredible amount of steadfastness. There is the usual jeopardy - will Captain Wentworth see sense or not, some great weather-dependent plot turns (see Mullan), a marvellous, heart-stopping letter-writing scene, and a sigh-inducing end. It was a good start to overturning my own Austen prejudices.
[I read it in the 1992 edition as shown. Not a good preface, and minimal notes. The best current edition is the 2008 OUP one.]