Persuasion, by Jane Austen
I just love Persuasion. I've read it several times by now, and the mystery I read put me in the mood to read it again, so I did.
I love how Anne Elliott is an older heroine, who has learned and matured from her trials. I think she might be the only Austen protagonist who does not go through a moment of humiliating self-discovery (is that right? Wait, maybe Elinor Dashwood?) that leads to her change and improvement. She has already been there, and instead she's in a phase of life where she is ready for a life of her own, but she really thinks her chance is over. All she can look forward to is long years of putting up with her father and sister and keeping her opinions to herself. She has had much of her hope and spirit squashed out of her and is now "faded and thin."
When Anne meets up with Captain Wentworth again, nearly 8 years after she refused to marry him, they both get another chance. Wentworth has been full of resentment and has to let go, while Anne becomes prettier and even younger as she begins to find herself again. I don't mean just that she learns to hope that she can still have Wentworth; she finds more congenial company and is able to be more herself as well.
When I read Sense and Sensibility several months ago, I was struck by how much work Elinor does to keep things running smoothly. She spends all her time and energy on social harmony--holding Marianne up, smoothing over rude actions and disagreements, keeping people happy. Anne Elliott spends much of her time on this too. Keeping Anne's sister Mary happy is a full-time job, and Anne also trains the children, keeps her head in a crisis, and makes the plans that keep things going. The fact that she has to do this shows what unhappy society she lives in; the Crofts and the Harvilles can make happy homes for themselves without extra help. I do think, though, that Austen sees the Crofts and Harvilles as exceptions and the Musgroves and Elliotts as more typical.
If you've never read Persuasion, you're in for a treat. It's a quiet book, but really wonderful.