I’ve been thinking a lot about Jane Austen’s Persuasion. Over the past few weeks, the following line from the novel slipped through my mind as I’ve walked to work, made a cup of tea, and absently stared at my balcony’s potted plants (when I should have been doing work): “[Anne Elliot] had been forced into prudence in her youth, she learned romance as she grew older: the natural sequel of an unnatural beginning.”
The line refers to the life narrative of the novel’s main character, Anne Elliot. As a young woman of nineteen, her family persuaded her to reject the marriage proposal of Captain Wentworth, because he didn’t have a large enough fortune to provide a comfortable life for her. This was the prudence that she learned in her youth. Eight years later, she and Captain Wentworth meet again. He has made his fortune as a Naval officer in the Napoleonic Wars; she has rejected another suitor and learned to regret her earlier decision. They get a second chance, and this time, Anne, tempered by experience and wisdom, finally says yes to the dashing captain. As Jane notes, this is Anne’s “natural sequel of an unnatural beginning.” Most young people learn such lessons of love and coupling the other way around.
“The natural sequel of an unnatural beginning.” What a phrase. I think about it a lot, especially after turning thirty this summer. Looking back, I hardly recognize the person I was at twenty, and like Anne, I have learned a few life lessons in a backwards fashion. I have become less serious, less quiet, less wrapped up in the folds of my inner life this past decade. I often hid from my peers behind a book—or behind the words in a beautifully constructed paragraph—yet as the decade went forward, I relied less on books and more on the company and love and supportive energy of my life’s beloveds. A mode of being that many of my peers had engaged in since their parents dropped them off at kindergarten, but something I only learned as an adult, struggling with the demands and loneliness of a graduate school program. That is my natural sequel of an unnatural beginning.
And yet, there was a sequel, to my life and to Anne’s, one that was not dictated by social expectations or some stock human narrative. Our narratives were formed through our choices and our willingness to examine and grow from them—and honestly, I prefer it that way.