November 2017 meeting: on Helena Kelly’s Jane Austen: The secret radical

November 22, 2017

Helena Kelly, The secret radicalPrepared by member Jenny.

Helena Kelly, with her book Jane Austen: The secret radical, certainly proved provocative – and sometimes in ways she did not intend.

Her book provides excellent background material about the social context of Jane Austen’s times but there was a definite tendency to provide too much. The looseness of her arguments and the author’s readiness to beg the question were also provoking.

All this seems to be partly due to the style of her writing. Helena’s approach is engaging but also erratic. She intersperses a factual style with an imaginative one including a smattering of colloquialisms which infuriated some readers.

In many respects, Kelly seems to be following in the footsteps of earlier critics. Austen’s ironic writing skills were initially decoded by Alice Meynell in 1894, calling her a “mistress of derision.”

One hundred years after her death Reginald Farrer called Austen “the most merciless, though calmest, of iconoclasts.”

It was D.W.Harding, in 1939, who truly shocked Austen devotees with his essay: Regulated Hatred, An Aspect of the work of Jane Austen. He saw her as explicitly trying to change the social order but as preserving the dignity of her subjects without sacrificing her right to protest.

This book appears to have been rushed and the editing is poor. The author, herself, speaks of her “somewhat incoherent thoughts” being shaped, but sadly, in our opinion, insufficiently. Kelly fails to define what she means by “radical” and many of her arguments start with possible assertions followed by the same ideas, suddenly presented as fact. Repetition, at times, became tedious.

Her research was very thorough but needed to be “lopped and cropped”. While the topics of the pursuit of money and status predominate in Austen’s writing, Kelly sees each novel as focusing on particular aspects of these themes – primogeniture, snobbery, poverty and the navy.

The initial chapter about Northanger Abbey is packed with information about the political tenor of the times – approaching totalitarianism, it would appear. The elucidation of The Mysteries of Udolpho was impressive in its detail and very relevant in a reading of the adventures of the supposed heiress, Catherine. However, Anne Radcliffe herself states:

“When the mind begins to yield…trifles impress it with the force of convictions” 

Helena Kelly appears to fall into this very trap on many occasions, not just Catherine Morland. Kelly believes Catherine’s attempts to unlock the cabinet in her room to be a description of masturbation. She relates this idea to an incident in David Lodge’s Campus Trilogy, of 1975, in which a fictional American lecturer shocks his class by suggesting that Anne found the moment when Wentworth lifted the little Walter Musgrove from her back as being orgasmic. Surely this was a very strange source of inspiration for her book.

Some material about the connections between the church and slavery in Mansfield Park was new to us but Kelly provides too much detail about Norris and Clarkson. The idea of Fanny’s cross and chain symbolising the connection between the church and slavery, while appealing, seemed far-fetched.

We questioned whether Austen was trying to be a secret radical or whether she was simply a very keen observer of society who wrote naturally about serious matters.

Kelly, at times, seemed to be too dogmatic and even at times, contradictory. She makes outlandish claims concerning Harriet’s Smith’s parenthood. We were divided as to whether Sir Thomas Bertram was simply promoting Fanny’s confidence and cause when he praised her appearance or whether he was overly interested in her as a sexual object. We questioned too, whether Kelly’s interpretation of a “hug” bestowed upon Fanny by her father was more than friendly. Her interpretation of Edward Ferrars cutting the scissors case to pieces also seemed outrageous.

Jane Austen’s borrowings from other contemporary writers were enlightening, in particular, the comparison with Wollstonecroft, proving how being overtly radical at the time, was unwise.

It seems strange that a writer who is obviously such a voracious researcher fails to argue her point more clearly and coherently. She often leaves her reader to join the dots.

Kelly certainly succeeded in reversing some readers’ viewpoints and wanting to consider things they hadn’t thought of before. Jane Austen: The Secret Radical contains gems of information but fails to deliver a powerful conclusion.

Jane Austen was highly critical of the society in which she lived. She was concerned about the role of fathers and the way money ruled people’s behaviour. But she admired responsible landowners and the navy and she welcomed changes in the social class structure. Overall we were not convinced this made her a secret radical – more a profoundly political and skilful social critic. But everything would finally depend upon your interpretation of the words “secret radical”.

Reference:

Lee, Wendy Anne: Resituating “Regulated Hatred” D.W.Harding’s Jane Austen, ELH (English Literary History), 77 (2010), John Hopkins University Press.

Other business:

JASACT will celebrate Jane Austen’s birthday on December 16 with a lunch at 12 noon at Muse, in the East Hotel in Kingston.

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The November Meeting

November 14, 2017

The November Meeting is this Saturday, November 18th at 1.30pm in the Friends’ Lounge of the National Library. We will be discussing Helena Kelly’s Jane Austen: The secret radical.


October 2017 meeting: Secondary sources on Austen’s Persuasion

November 2, 2017
Persuasion bookcovers

Our Persuasions!

Prepared by member Cheng

Numbers were reduced for the October gathering as many of our members were on holidays – including one lucky soul in Bath! If only we could have Skyped him… However, the secondary sources were presented with enthusiasm and discussed with vigour.

JANE AUSTEN’S NAMES : RIDDLES, PERSONS, PLACES by Margaret Doody, University of Chicago Press, 2015. Doody states that ‘Austen achieves meaning [in her choice of names] that goes down deep into layers of English history and relationship to land’. She had a great love of history, the etymology of words and the derivation of personal and place names. This detailed knowledge informed her choice for her character’s names, which indicate to us something about their personalities, origins, occupations and standing in the community. Their names can also contain little jokes against themselves or others.

Puns, or semantically appropriate words abound. For example Mrs Clay conjures dirt, mud, meaning that Sir Walter is far from the rarified atmosphere in which he believes he moves. Mr. Shepherd cunningly leads and guides Sir Walter and Elizabeth as a shepherd his sheep. According to a slang dictionary of the period, Dick Musgrove’s first name equates to effeminacy, weakness, failure. Captain Wentworth, Doody suggests, ‘went’ but ended up ‘worth’ something. And Croft, meaning ‘the humble home of a peasant farmer’, suits the unpretentious natures and way of life of Admiral and Mrs Croft. Even their language is colloquial, in contrast to Sir Walter’s.

Elliot is an ancient name with a possible biblical connection to Elias but in the novel Charles ll was the first to raise an Elliot to the Baronetcy. The Elliots were connected to the Irish Dalrymples and Sir Walter inherited feudal attitudes which showed in his fawning over people of rank and title, especially the Dowager Viscountess Dalrymple and her daughter, Miss Carteret. There is another sly dig here, as the name Carteret suggests descent from a carter or hauler [a French ‘et’ added to lend a little cachet]. Another undercurrent of ridicule, a sly political joke, lies in a contemporary Sir Hew Dalrymple who in 1808 botched an armistice agreement with Napoleon and was nicknamed ‘the Dowager’.

Sir Walter’s boasting of the connection to the Dalrymples was without foundation as Scottish and Irish titles were considered inferior to those of purely English lineage. He was rather removed from the top layer of the highborn English aristocracy and did not appreciate the fact that their titles had been mostly created as a result of military courage and fortitude.

Janine Barchas, Matters of factMATTERS OF FACT IN JANE AUSTEN by Janine Barchas, the Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012, was cited as another excellent source on this topic. Particularly Chapter 6, Persuasion’s Battle of the Books : Baronetage versus Navy List.

One member was fascinated by VIRGINIA WOOLF’S famous REVIEW, January 31, 1924, of the publication of R.W.Chapman’s edition of the Novels of Jane Austen, in Five Volumes. She was intrigued by Woolf’s idea that ‘enough attention perhaps has never yet been paid to the novels that Jane Austen did not write’ and her taking of Persuasion as a light by which to see how she may have written had she lived to 60.

Persuasion marks the transition stage between two different periods – ‘we feel that she is trying to do something which she has never yet attempted. There is a new element in Persuasion, a quality, perhaps, that made Dr. Whewell fire up and insist that it was “the most beautiful of her works”.’ Austen is beginning to write more of the larger world around her, of nature, the seasons, places. ‘Her attitude to life itself has altered……the observation is less of facts and more of feelings than is usual…….Experience, when it was of a serious kind, had to sink very deep, and to be thoroughly disinfected by the passage of time, before she allowed herself to deal with it in fiction.’

And the six novels that Jane Austen did not write? She would have known more. Her sense of security would have been shaken. Her comedy would have suffered. She would have trusted less (this is already perceptible in Persuasion) to dialogue and more to reflection to give us the knowledge of her characters. Those marvellous little speeches which sum up in a few minutes’ chatter all that we need in order to know an Admiral Croft or a Mrs Musgrove forever, that shorthand, hit-or-miss method which contains chapters of analysis and psychology, would have become too crude to hold all that she now perceived of the complexity of human nature. She would have devised a method, clear and composed as ever, but deeper and more suggestive, for conveying not only what people say, but what they leave unsaid; not only what they are, but (if we may be pardoned the vagueness of the expression) what life is. She would have stood further away from her characters, and seen them more as a group, less as individuals. Her satire, when it played less incessantly, would have been more stringent and severe. She would have been the forerunner of Henry James and of Proust – but enough. Vain are these speculations: she died “just as she was beginning to feel confidence in her own success”.

Enit Steiner, Jane AustenJANE AUSTEN: NORTHANGER ABBEY /  PERSUASION edited by Enit Kanafili Steiner. A clever choice because it summarises all the criticisms. Following are the three she found the most interesting.

  • Howard Babb in Jane Austen’s Novels: the Fabric of Dialogue, 1962, contends that speakers keep up an appearance of decorum by pretending to talk of the literal situation while indeed they treat it metaphorically thus betraying their most intense feelings. He calls this METAPHORIC INDIRECTION and points to three dialogues which refer obliquely to ideas that Wentworth and Anne cannot communicate directly to each other.
    – the discussion between Wentworth and Croft about taking wives to sea
    – Wentworths’s discussion of the nut at Winthrop
    – Anne and Harville’s discussion about constancy
    The Metaphoric Indirection of dialogue creates a story where “the clues to their behaviour lie in the deeds of their language”.
  • Wolfe’s The Achievement of ‘Persuasion’, 1971, notes the distinct dramatisation of Anne’s consciousness which later writers see as the originator of the stream of consciousness style. Technically the narrator’s perspective is aligned with Anne’s so that we develop a sense of identification with her thoughts and experiences. The dramatic soliloquy used to convey the speech of characters is replaced by free indirect speech:

    Jealousy of Mr. Elliot. It was the only intelligible motive. Captain Wentworth jealous of her affection! Could she have believed it a week ago; three hours ago…

  • In Professor Belinda Jack’s 2016 lecture entitled Jane Austen, ‘Persuasion’: Irony and the Mysterious Vagaries of Narrative Transcript she pointed out that rhetoric has a bad name as being use to deceive “but rhetoric is also an ancient discipline that tries to make sense of how we persuade”. Jack believes that Austen’s use of irony in Persuasion and the narrative technique combine to create a crucial moral dimension. Irony is a slippery rhetorical device – “a method of comprehension” according to Trilling. No statement can really ‘mean what it says’, because all statements are subject to ironic undermining. Words cannnot bind an ironist because they can always say “but that is not what I meant”. It is a central feature of certain forms of textual production which have “a fundamental ethical importance … because they give us the opportunity to think differently, to move beyond the given codification of right and wrong. Austen leaves us with a multiple choices of interpretation which allow the novels a moral reach. It is the reader who must decide where the morally proper decisionmaking lies.

JANE AUSTEN THE SECRET RADICAL, Helena Kelly, Icon Books, 2016 was introduced by a member who had focused on Chapter 6, Decline and Fall – Persuasion. It was the quality of change, constant change, within the novel that had appealed to her most. Changing class distinctions, status, occupations, locations, houses, furnishings, fashions, opinions, allegiances, even geological changes of the land itself at Lyme. Austen lived on the cusp of both historical change and literary change. We hope to discuss this more fully in our November meeting which is devoted to this book.

JOHN WILTSHIRE’s writings inspired another member to remark on the fact that Persuasion is set in the exact months that Napoleon was on Elba. Chance plays such an important part in this novel. All the navy men were on shore, enjoying the pleasures that were felt due to national heroes. (After Waterloo the army was to gain popular ascendancy over the navy.) In the final chapter the reality of ‘the dread of a future war’ would have been well understood by Austen’s readers.

THE CONNELL GUIDE TO JANE AUSTEN’S PERSUASION, John Wiltshire, 2016 was the last offering, and was described by our member as ‘a first rate little pocket-sized guide for readers of all persuasions’. Susannah Fullerton’s praise in Sensibilities, no.53, December 2016 is well deserved. Wiltshire includes extensive quotes from many of the well-regarded Austen authorities, prompting a re-think on many vital points. A favourite quote from Adela Finch, regarding Louisa and Benwick, argues that Persuasion suggests a connection between the way people can be persuaded by one another, as Anne is by Lady Russell, with the way we can be influenced by books, raising the broader question  of whether our thoughts and desires are ever our own thoughts and desires at all.

The meeting ended with the customary games of quotes and quizzes – and warm friendship.


The October Meeting

October 16, 2017

The October Meeting is this Saturday in the Friends’ Lounge of the National Library at 1.30pm. We will be discussing secondary sources on Persuasion.


September 2017 meeting: Persuasion (Vol. 2)

September 17, 2017
Persuasion bookcovers

Our Persuasions!

As reported in our August post, we dedicated our August and September meetings to Persuasion, commemorating the 200th anniversary of its publication. In August we discussed Volume 1, so September, of course, was devoted to Volume 2. Nine members were present – and, as in August, we started by sharing our first impressions, that is, we each shared something that struck us on this particular read.

First impressions of Persuasion Volume 2

Even though by the time we got to the sixth person, contributors were starting to feel they had nothing new to say, somehow, each still found something to add. Funny that!

  • Mrs Smith’s revelations (2:9): A few members chose this chapter to discuss, because it feels less well developed than the rest of the book. One member described it as “appallingly drawn out and laborious” and felt that Austen would probably have rewritten it if she’d had the chance. Another member felt that it all comes out in a big rush, and wished the tension had been developed more, that the story of Mr Elliot’s perfidy had been unfolded more slowly. Also, what were his motives re Mrs Clay at the end, she wondered? There was a general feeling that this plot-line was not fully explored. A member suggested, however, that this might be because the lives of the upper echelons weren’t Austen’s main concern. She may, therefore, have felt it unnecessary to fully develop this story.
  • The narrative style, the fact that we are largely in Anne’s head, which means we rarely get more direct insight into the other characters. We pretty much see it all from her point-of-view or in terms of its effect on her.
  • Mary’s letter to Anne (2:6) is a treasure, and gorgeously comical. It is full of complaints and contradictions, typifying Mary perfectly. It includes the wonderful quote:

but I have my usual luck, I am always out of the way when any thing desirable is going on; always the last of my family to be noticed.

  • Anne represents the future. In the second half of the book, Anne starts to come into her own, and seems to represent the woman of the future, an independent self-will woman who is more focused on the future than the past. The ending is positive about the future – except, added another member, there is the caveat regarding more war!
  • New society: Related to this idea, said another member, is that the book represents a new direction in Austen’s treatment of aristocracy as a group on the downward slide – they are found wanting. There is a sense that the new society to be led by upper middle class, the professionals.
  • Diverse picture of the condition of women of the period. In the second part of the novel there is an impressive array for women of all sorts, from servant and working class, like Nurse Rooke, through the good-humoured women like Mrs Musgrove and Mrs Harville, to the weird representatives of the aristocracy, including Lady Darlymple and her daughter Miss Carteret (whose appearance was such that she would never have been tolerated by Sir Walter except for her birth.) Our member liked this description of Nurse Rooke:

She is a shrewd, intelligent, sensible woman. Hers is a line for seeing human nature; and she has a fund of good sense and observation which, as a companion, make her infinitely superior to thousands of those who having only received ‘the best education in the world,’ know nothing worth attending to.

  • Is Anne a mature Fanny? This was a controversial idea, with some agreeing and others resisting the idea. The proposer argued that both resist pressure, both have strong moral values, both nearly lose their “love” to rivals, and both resist pressure/encouragement to marry people they don’t love. Anne is of course different to Fanny – has more power and agency given her social place – and is older and therefore more experienced/mature, but is she a development of that sort of character? One member said that she saw like likenesses between Anne and Elinor.
  • Development of Anne and Wentworth’s relationship. This member continued her “forensic” look at the development of Anne and Wentworth’s rel. Gradually, in volume 2, having barely spoken to each other in volume 1, their conversation increases. Anne speaks to him, bravely, at the concert. Why though did the Crofts never see Anne as a possible match for Wentworth (their brother/brother-in-law)?
  • Persuasion and Self-interest. Last meeting we discussed Lady Russell’s advice to Anne, which found wanting while others felt had some justification. In volume 2, Lady R’s judgement, in seeing Mr Elliot as a good suitor for Anne, is called into question again. She’s also a member of the aristocracy, which is not presented positively in the book. Yet, in the novel’s resolution, Lady R is treated well. Is this because her advice, poor though it is (or turns out to be) stems not from self-interest? And, what about Mrs Smith? She was prepared not to share her knowledge of Mr Elliot’s perfidious character with Anne. She gives a reason for this, but is there some self-interest in her decision not to influence or persuade? She, too, though is treated well in the novel’s resolution.

Further discussion

From these first impressions, our discussion roamed even more widely.

We talked about the movie adaptations. Most of us don’t like the most recent adaptation, seeing Anne’s running through the streets of Bath as inappropriate and out of character. One member though reminded us to consider the way cinema needs to use visual language to convey meanings in the text. True, others agreed, but the visual language has to feel right! One member asked why Austen adaptations don’t use voice-over more often.

One member suggested that Persuasion is a sadder book than other Austens. It seems to have more illness, accidents and deaths. Is this reflective of where Austen was herself in her life? And, should we feel sorry for Elizabeth Elliot? Austen doesn’t explore her reaction to Mr Elliot’s apparent interest in Anne. At the end, she is left a sad character, likely to spend the rest of her father’s life by his side, increasingly isolated.

It might be a sadder book, but it has some wonderful scenes and we shared a couple of favourite social gathering scenes. The experience of social gatherings is something Austen so perfectly captures. One example in Persuasion is when Sir Walter and Elizabeth appear at the White Hart to hand out their invitation cards to their evening card-party. It had been a happy gathering, “a party of steady old friends”, until:

Alarming sounds were heard; other visitors approached, and the door was thrown open for Sir Walter and Miss Elliot, whose entrance seemed to give a general chill. Anne felt an instant oppression, and, wherever she looked, saw symptoms of the same. The comfort, the freedom, the gaiety of the room was over, hushed into cold composure, determined silence, or insipid talk, to meet the heartless elegance of her father and sister. How mortifying to feel that it was so! (2:10)

Another is in the next chapter when the card-party is underway:

The evening came, the drawing-rooms were lighted up, the company assembled. It was but a card-party, it was but a mixture of those who had never met before, and those who met too often—a common-place business, too numerous for intimacy, too small for variety; (2:11)

We discussed various aspects of Austen’s writing, including her plotting. We commented on how, in Persuasion, she uses overheard conversations (Wentworth overhearing Anne and Capt. Harville) and letters (Mr Elliot’s letter to Mrs Smith’s late husband) to share information. (One member suggested that this letter between Mr Elliot and Mr Smith is an example of “a conversation” between men in Austen.) We talked about the various ways in which Austen’s women characters learn about men’s wickedness, such as Colonel Brandon telling Elinor about Willoughby, and Darcy’s letter telling Elizabeth about Wickham.

In terms of style we also briefly discussed the cancelled chapter 10 (replaced by chapters 10 and 11) which many of us had read before, but only one for this meeting. She described the original chapter, which relates the coming together of Anne and Wentworth at Kellynch-hall, and suggested that it is believable but “tamer” than the published revised version.

Also on the style issue, a member raised the humour suggesting that it is very different in this novel. It’s more sly, clever. While Sir Walter and Mary can be quite comedic, they are no match, for example, for Mr Collins.

This brought us again to characters, particularly poor Mary. Yes, she’s irritating with her hypochondria and focus on precedence and status, but do these just indicate that she’s an unhappy person? She’s warmer than big sister Elizabeth, and she does at least write to Anne. She also appreciates Anne’s help!

One member suggested that the book is a “brilliant portrayal of a lovelorn woman’s interpretation of the behaviours of her ex-fiancé”.

Interestingly, we didn’t talk a lot about its overall theme – perhaps because we did that in detail when we read it in 2006 (before our blog). The topic though is sure to come up next month when we share our readings of secondary sources/critics on the book.

Meanwhile, there were questions about how well “finished” the book is. Would Austen, we wondered, have worked more on it had she had the time? One member shared a critic’s comment that Persuasion is one of the few novels people wish were longer – and no-one present disagreed. (Could its resolution have been developed more?) Regardless, it remains one of Austen’s most loved novels and we did enjoy our slow read.


The September Meeting

September 12, 2017

The September Meeting is this Saturday, 16th September at 1.30pm in the Friends’ Lounge of the National Library. We will be discussing Volume 2 of Persuasion.


August 2017 meeting: Persuasion (Vol. 1)

August 27, 2017

This year being the 200th anniversary of the publication of Persuasion, we are devoting the second half of the year to it, starting with our usual slow read. Eight enthusiastic members turned up for the discussion – and a very fine discussion it was.

We started by sharing our first impressions! That is, we each shared one thing that struck us on this read. Now, we have of course all read Persuasion before – most of us many times – so this “one thing” was not intended to be the most important thing about volume 1, but something that particularly captured our attention this read.

First impressions of Persuasion Volume 1

They were:

  • Gender aspects: Austen creates some strong gender roles in the novel, such as in the Crofts, and Lady Elliot. Mrs Croft is presented as a strong practical woman, and our member felt Austen admired her. It was also commented that women in this novel are not seen practising the “womanly” arts of needlework, though they do play piano.
  • Description of unattached women: This book has a large number of unattached women – Lady Russell, Mrs Clay, Elizabeth and Anne Elliot, the Musgrove sisters – and our member was interested in the ways Austen describes these women, their different statuses/positions. She also commented that Anne is a lovely yet interesting character, which is a combination that can be hard to achieve.
  • The time Austen takes to establish Anne, the novel’s protagonist: Austen starts with Sir Walter, Elizabeth, and Lady Russell. We don’t really see her operating until she visits Mary Musgrove, at which time her character comes over well.
  • The Cinderella aspect: the Cinderella story comes through strongly, with Lady Russell as the “wicked stepmother” and Mary and Elizabeth the “ugly sisters”. But, is Anne presented as almost too patient.
  • Lady Russell’s value: The above comment result in this member, who had planned to discuss Captain Wentworth, jumping to Lady Russell’s defence. She felt Lady Russell had had Anne’s best interest at heart, and that at the time of the broken engagement Captain Wentworth was indeed not a good prospect. (After all, look at what happened when Fanny’s  mother in Mansfield Park married a man with prospects, she said!) Austen’s description of Frederick suggests he was improvident, and believed himself lucky. This resulted in a lot of discussion about Lady Russell. Some argued that, with the book being about “class vs merit”, about the decline of the aristocracy and the rise middle classes, Lady Russell’s aristocratic ideals and expectations, make her a negative influence. So, is she a beneficent godmother or wicked stepmother?
  • Attitudes to class: Austen’s acerbic views on lower aristocracy, represented by Sir Walter Elliot and Elizabeth in particular, versus her presentation of “the lower levels”. They may not all be “the brightest buttons” (e.g. Musgroves) but are seen positively.
  • Sisters’ behaviour: Louisa and Henrietta’s behaviour is more “modern” than that of young single women in the earlier novels. They go for long walks on their own (i.e. unsupervised) with men, for example. They have more freedom, in other words. Is this Austen heralding a transition in social behaviour!
  • Structure: Austen carefully structures her novel to ensure the plot is logical and the characters believable, so, for example, Anne’s caring for young Walter sets up Anne’s character as a caring and competent person so that when the Lyme fall occurs we accept Anne’s role and expectations of her. Austen also uses parallels/dichotomies to set up contrasting ways of being or acting, such as Sir Walter versus Admiral Croft as examples of men, or the Musgrove sisters versus the Elliot sisters as example of sisterly behaviour.

Further discussion

From these first impressions, our discussion flowed freely back and forth from idea to idea – and it was a challenge to capture! Apologies to attendees if I missed or have misrepresented your gem of an idea.

We talked about Austen’s skills as a novelist, with one member continuing the idea of the slow way in which Anne’s character is established, to talk about the development of her renewed acquaintance with Captain Wentworth. She described how he doesn’t appear until Chapter 7, and that from then on there are no real verbal communications between him and Anne until the Lyme accident. Their relationship is conveyed, until then, through thoughts, reactions and physical actions. For example, he does things for her, showing a care for her wellbeing. Anne often misinterprets his actions. But the reader sees it differently, such as Captain Wentworth noticing Mr Elliot’s response to seeing Anne at Lyme.

Austen develops her characters carefully. Captain Wentworth is presented with a few options for a wife, particularly Louisa and Henrietta. He had made rather facetious comments to his sister, Mrs Croft, about being an easy catch, though in fact he was looking for substance. He has to learn, though, the different between “strength of mind” and “wilfulness” (as Louisa is at Lyme). Austen also presents us with alternative beaus for Anne, including Mr Elliot, and Captain Benwick who, like Anne, is educated and reflective.

We noted that this book contains more physical description of place – of Lyme, in particular – than we see in her other books, and felt that this indicates her love of Lyme. Conversely, we also felt that Anne’s dislike of Bath reflects Austen’s own. We also noted her use of weather and the seasons to convey mood (the pathetic fallacy that we discussed in a meeting last year).  Much of the action of this volume takes place in autumn, which can be a melancholy month, underpinning Anne’s mood:

The sweet scenes of autumn were for a while put by—unless some tender sonnet, fraught with the apt analogy of the declining year, with declining happiness, and the images of youth and hope, and spring, all gone together, blessed her memory.

We also noted that this is the only book which is given a very specific time period – covering the period of Napoleon’s exile at Elba.

We admired the economy with which Austen describes important action, in this case the fall at Lyme. It’s all conveyed in a very few sentences.

We discussed Austen’s contribution to the novel. We believe that while she didn’t write the first romantic novels, she did spearhead realistic rather than sensational writing.

We commented on the humour, such as the Lyme locals wanting “to enjoy the sight of a dead young lady”! And of course on Austen’s use of irony, such as “the kind friends” who had passed on to Sir Walter and Elizabeth, Mr Elliot’s disparaging remarks about them.

Appearance is a significant issue in the book, and we talked briefly about Sir Walter, and Elizabeth’s misguided certainty that Mrs Clay was not a threat because Sir Walter disliked freckles. But, appearance is also discussed in relation to our two protagonists. Captain Wentworth had, according to Anne, not changed at all in the seven plus years since they’d last met, while he sees that she’s “altered” and barely recognisable (like Cinderella, added our Cinderella-story member!) We discussed how Anne had spent those seven years. It was suggested that Austen is asking us to consider how character is formed. Her heart was broken, and yet she quietly gets on with her life. She is the overlooked middle daughter, and yet is important to the family.

A member shared Sir Walter’s initial thoughts on not wanting to rent Kellynch Hall to a naval person, suggesting they point to two ongoing issues in the novel – status and appearance:

Yes; it is in two points offensive to me; I have two strong grounds of objection to it. First, as being the means of bringing persons of obscure birth into undue distinction, and raising men to honours which their fathers and grandfathers never dreamt of; and secondly, as it cuts up a man’s youth and vigour most horribly;…

We talked a little about the title, which, although not chosen by Austen, is apt and suggests her family, whom we believe titled it, understood the book well. A member noted that the word “persuasion” has different meanings. One, “to persuade”, that is, to encourage someone to believe or do something, is the meaning most often considered in discussions of the book. However, “a persuasion” can also refer to a set of attitudes or beliefs. We look forward to seeing how these two meanings play out in the second volume.

Members mentioned other issues that are discussed in the novel, including:

  • education. The Musgroves place little value on it, worrying about Charles Hayter spending too much time studying, whereas for Anne, reading and study are important.
  • silly behaviour. Austen makes a point of showing us silly behaviour, such as Mary’s self-centredness, Mrs Musgrove’s blindness regarding “poor Richard”, Sir Walter’s stupidity (starting with an inability to manage his finances effectively), and Elizabeth’s blindness re Mrs Clay.

It might sound from all this that our meeting was bland, with no disagreements, but that wouldn’t be a true Jane Austen meeting, now would it! We didn’t all agree on Lady Russell, and neither did all agree with the member who “felt a bit sorry” for Elizabeth! Another member ventured the idea that Louisa and Henrietta got on “too well”, particularly given they were vying for Captain Wentworth but others disagreed, feeling that the rivalry wasn’t a strong one (unlike that between the Bertram sisters in Mansfield Park). What we did all seem to agree on, though, is that Persuasion is a lovely book!

We concluded our discussion with a member reading excerpts from Austen’s letter to her niece Fanny about the book, in which she suggested that Fanny wouldn’t like it, and that the “heroine is almost too good for me”. Austen was dead 4 months later. We all wondered how much more work she may have done on the novel, had she lived longer.