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.
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.