According to the Young Readers Foundation, reading nurtures the mind. It opens doors to knowledge, helps develop critical thinking and writing skills, improves memory, increases empathy, and much more. Many of the characters in Jane Austen’s ‘Persuasion’ read, whether it is the characters reading about themselves, poetry, or prose.
For some characters, what they read is not only a reflection of their personalities, but also their beliefs, pride and shame. When readers are first introduced to Sir Walter Elliot, he is reading the Baronetage (a book that lists the baronets of England and their lineage). More specifically, Sir Walter is reading the page about him and his family. From this action alone, one can deduce that Sir Walter is very vain. In addition, Austen mentions that “vanity was the beginning and the end of Sir Walter Elliot’s character” (10). This further affirms that Sir Walter reads the Baronetage to feed his ego and indulge in his status as part of the upper class. While him being a baronet is not the highest rank in the upper class and not part of the aristocracy, he believes that “the blessing of beauty as inferior only to the blessing of a baronetcy” (10). However, while the Baronetage brings Sir Walter pride, it evokes feelings of shame from Elizabeth.
For Elizabeth, “to be presented with the date of her own birth, and see no marriage follow but that of a youngest sister, made the book an evil’ (12). The book reminds Elizabeth that she is unmarried and to have her youngest sister married before her makes her unable to read it. In addition, it is a reminder that “the heir presumptive, the very William Walter Elliot, Esq. whose rights had been so generously supported by her father, had disappointed her’ (12). Prior to the events of the novel, it was expected that Mr. Elliot and Elizabeth would be engaged, but him marrying another woman still disappoints her after many years.
Another example of a character reading a book to indulge in their status is Captain Wentworth. In Volume I Chapter VIII, Mrs. Musgrove, Louisa, Henrietta and Captain Wentworth are looking over the navy list, and the topic of the ships Captain Wentworth has commanded comes up. Louisa and Henrietta begin looking through the navy list for the Laconia and “Captain Wentworth could not deny himself the pleasure of taking the precious volume into his hands to save them the trouble, and once more read aloud the little statement of her name and rate” (58). Like Sir Walter, seeing his own name in gives Captain Wenthworth pride.
Poetry is a form of distraction for the mind because it lets one wallow and linger in their feelings. Captain Benwick is one of the avid readers in ‘Persuasion’, and is able to recite lines from romantic poetry. However, he only reads poetry. “He repeated, with such tremulous feeling, the various lines which imaged a broken heart, or a mind destroyed by wretchedness, and looked so entirely as if he meant to be understood” (85). Recognizing this, Anne “feeling in herself the right of superiority of mind, she ventured to recommend a larger allowance of prose in his daily study…to rouse and fortify the mind by the highest precepts, and the strongest examples of moral and religious endurance” (31). However, while poetry causes one to stay in their thoughts, reading prose helps one stay tied to reality. While Captain Benwick gets carried away because of poetry, which Anne does too. “Her pleasure in the walk must arise from the exercise and the day, from the view of the last smiles of the year upon the tawny leaves and withered hedges, and from repeating to herself some few of the thousand poetical descriptions extant of autumn, that season of peculiar and inexhaustible influence on the mind of taste and tenderness, that season which has drawn from every poet, worthy of being read, some attempt at description, or some lines of feeling” (71). However, because Anne reads prose in addition to poetry, Anne doesn’t get carried away as easily is able to stay grounded.
In conclusion, in this novel, the kinds of literature the characters read reflect their personalities and through their choice of literature, readers are able to deduce that reading is not all beneficial to character development.