Persuation by Jane Austen - 13 February

Eleven of us, including two new members, were present on February 13th to discuss Persuasion, by Jane Austen, presented by Katharine C.
Katharine started her presentation by saying that she has a certain amount of familiarity with Jane Austen, and that Lizzie Bennett is her favorite heroine of all time. She said that it is conjectured that Jane Austen suffered from Addison's disease, and that she was in pain and probably knew that her time was limited. Persuasion is shorter and less polished than Austen's other novels, but she did have time to re-write some of the chapters. She lived with her family, supported by her brothers after their father died. Persuasion was published posthumously, and the title was not chosen by the author herself, but probably by family members. (The original title was The Elliots.)./.Katharine said that, although she reads quickly, she forced herself to read this book more slowly in order to savor it. She quoted that "Jane Austen can in fact get more drama out of morality than most other writers can get from shipwreck, battle, murder, or mayhem." She has sometimes been criticized, though, for the lack of social comment in her books; she was felt to have disregarded the wider political and social issues of her day. "There is no doubt that the world of her novels is limited, but this was deliberate on her part. She portrayed the section of society and types of character with which she was most familiar. She wrote in a letter to her sister that 'three or four families in a country village is just the thing to work on,' and likened herself to a miniaturist, describing her books as 'little bits (two inches wide) of ivory on which I work with so fine a brush.'" All the same, the Napoleonic wars affected her later novels.
The heroine in Persuasion, Anne Elliot, is based on Jane Austen herself. (e.g. She has "everything but bloom.") Austen wrote "Anne wondered..." but it's Austen who is asking the reader to wonder. She was a harsh judge of the society in which she lived, and she presents her views via her characters. Recurrent themes which can also be found in Austen's other novels are: older women (more sensible and capable, like Jane herself), the self-made man (who rises from humble beginnings to affluence and status on the strength of merit and luck, not by inheritance – the success of Austen's own two brothers in the Royal Navy is probably significant), family (Austen makes some biting comments – Elizabeth prefers the gold-digger Mrs.Clay to her sister, and Mary wants to nurse her sister-in-law but not her own son), redemption (the gradual reuniting of Anne and Wentworth provides the main plot, suspense, and human drama of the novel), pride, sensibility, social position. Her irony has a moral point. Her attitude toward inherited wealth and rank comes through when she portrays the landed gentry as the "twerps." As an aside, it was noted that in England, class means money, whereas in America, money is more important than class. (Have you heard of the Society for Depressed Gentlewomen?) The question was raised, "Why didn't Capt. Wentworth understand the reasons for Anne's rejection of him (due to social requirements of the day) and come back for her when he had enough money? Was it pride that kept him away?" Austen's heroines are able to mock others, and her standard characters provide plenty of targets: silly or garrulous women, "wimpy" or vain men, frivolous girls. The Musgroves in Persuasion are pleasant and light-hearted, but not very "deep." One character's judgment of another on the basis of "sun-darkened skin" or esteem "in spite of her freckles" are gems of social comment. Jane Austen's biographer Claire Tomlin wrote that Austen was avenging herself and other old maids by having a heroine who wins out.
The discussion started with someone saying that one must not only read Austen slowly, but also go back over sentences and paragraphs to understand what the author was saying. Someone else said that all her writing is style and texture; there's no depth to her characters, and good always wins. Yet another said that it's amazing that her books make such good movies, which one participant dubbed "Chick Flicks," and someone noted that spinster Anne knew an awful lot about men, which led to the question of whether men enjoy Austen's books as much as women do. In The Jane Austen Book Club, only one man came. Katharine said that the movie "Becoming Jane" is not entirely true to fact. Another comment was that, considering that women had no rights at the time, it's always astounding to see how much they were expected to do (sewing, embroidery, playing piano). The wives of sea captains even went to sea with their husbands. It was felt that the adventurous Mrs.Croft was one of the most interesting characters. She's an example of a strong-minded woman who married for love, not money. The round-table comments continued. The book seemed much more modern than late 19th century. Queen Victoria put an end to everything. People had servants in those days, but we have modern appliances. Now we are accepted for what we are and don't have to circulate and make polite conversation, plus play a tune on the piano, etc. (which elicited the remark, "We're not members of the upper class!") The question arose of whether Jane Austen is being studied in the universities here, and what students might think of the lifestyle in her books. Literary styles have definitely changed; one need only ask a student the name of his or her favorite book. Jane Austen is no longer under copyright. KJ showed us an article from The Sunday Times that reported on Hollywood studios "bidding to turn a radical reworking of Austen's most popular book, now called Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, a parody to be published in April, into a blockbuster movie." PR described an history book for 8-year-olds that had no words, just pictures, which allowed each teacher to put his or her own "slam" on the lesson. She also said the kids were asked to produce a "b-d" (comic strip), which is more fun to read than a "real" book. AS felt that the "classics" have to be seen or acted. These days, kids are more oral. They can make speeches more comfortably, but the ability to debate is lacking in France. Debating is not taught in schools, but there are debate shows on television. Unfortunately there's a lot of yelling and rudeness on some debate shows.
Back to the book!! There was a lot of travel back and forth – Lyme, Bath, Uppercross. DP said it's a shame there wasn't a map in the book. She also said her copy has notes at the end, including an interesting description of the various carriages. Graduating to a better carriage symbolized moving up in life. The characters could walk for miles (wonder what type of shoes they had), but had to be transported when going to visit, in order to be seen, and in order to be able to snub others or not, when out and about. KC said it's interesting how scornful Anne (and thus Jane Austen) was of Bath, and wondered why. Was it because in the countryside, she was "someone" (a baronet's daughter)? The "lower" classes, represented by the Musgroves, the Crofts, Mrs.Smith (and her nurse), are portrayed as more good-natured and sensible than the "aristocracy."
Jane Austen and her family visited the seaside town of Lyme (Lyme Regis, although Austen didn't use the full name) several times, and Austen fans often visit the town. J.M.W Turner painted a scene of Lyme Regis. James McNeill Whistler stayed there. Beatrix Potter's illustrations for Little Pig Robinson were a result of her holiday there. Jane Austen's house house in Bath has been converted to a museum. (There's also an American museum in Bath with exquisite quilts.) There is also a Jane Austen house in Chawton.
DP found it strange that Anne didn't immediately look for a way to help her friend Mrs.Smith regarding the financial problems with her property. Was that a flaw in the plot? (had to wait for Wentworth to help) The plot starts to come together when Anne says, "The one claim I shall make for my own sex is that we love longest, when all hope is gone." But more than this I cannot say/write because we wouldn't want to give away the ending to anyone who has not yet read the book. Let it suffice that PR said, "Watch out for the dropping pen," and DP said, "You could hear a pen drop." Austen's "older" heroines (more than 26 years old) are meant to show that it's good to be sensible, yet Anne is put down by just about everyone, which led to the question of whether Jane Austen was put down by her family. No family portrait of her exists, yet KC felt that her family was close. Anne appears to be unconsciously jealous of Elizabeth. Might there have been something in Jane Austen's life that was a basis for that? Or perhaps it was just from her observance of other families and her surroundings. Did she have an axe to grind, since it was predominantly men who wrote books at the time? (Anne says, "Men have had every advantage of us in telling their own story. ...the pen has been in their hands.") Exceptions were the Bronté sisters, and George Eliot and George Sand, which were pseudonyms.
Katharine asked what we thought of Lady Russell (horrid, a puzzle, truly fond of Anne, gave Anne advice although misguided, a little "mea culpa") before giving her own opinion that the character was not well-drawn enough and might have been different if Austen had had more time for a re-write. She is snobbish, and thus a good representation of her class. She has some inner contradictions. Why didn't she really go after Anne's father? (Perhaps she felt she couldn't replace her friend, his deceased wife.) Elizabeth was probably not well drawn either, since we have little or no recollection of her afterwards (except that she was happy not to take a present to Anne as a means to save money). As to the thought of William Elliot marrying Anne to keep her father from marrying Mrs.Clay... How contrived!! On the other hand, Elizabeth despised William Elliot, and might she therefore have used Mrs.Clay to avenge herself? It seems natural that William, upon returning to their society, would have wanted to marry Elizabeth. But perhaps her father wanted to keep her for himself because she was useful to him. DP said she needed not just a map in the book, but a family tree. It was noted that the first-born son was the heir, the second went into the military, and the third joined the clergy. The charming Admiral Croft hopes that there'll be another big war in order to solve the problem of young men seeking employment.
Jane Austen died in 1817 at the age of 41. She never wrote a memoir, sat for an interview, nor recorded whether she had herself felt the joys and disappointments of love. Her epitaph, written by her brother, is three paragraphs long, but does not mention that she was a writer. There were long periods between her first novels and her later ones, perhaps because she had no time to write because of her "responsibilities." Persuasion is featured in the 2006 movie The Lake House. Many themes and incidents from Persuasion are presented in an updated setting in the novel Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason. Persuading Annie, a novel by Melissa Nathan, is a modern version of Persuasion. Connivance, a novel by Helen Baker, is a continuation, resolving the future of Mrs.Clay in Persuasion. Jane Austen in Scarsdale, a novel by Paula Marantz Cohen, is based on the plot of Persuasion, but stars a high-school guidance counselor dealing with students' and parents' anxiety over college admissions. There is a reference to Persuasion in The French Lieutenant's Woman, by John Fowles.
In summary, Jane Austen wrote six major novels, and we're still reading them.(and the notes on the discussion are almost as long the little book itself!)
Following the meeting, Katharine sent an e-mail message saying that the full text of Persuasion, easy to read, can be found at http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/a/austen/jane/a93p/