Friday, February 1, 2013
On Persuasion, by Dr. Ken Bugajski
The Bookish Catholics Resident Professor is back again! We welcome Dr. Ken Bugajski, Associate Professor of English at the University of St. Francis in Fort Wayne, Indiana. He shares his thoughts with us as we begin reading Persuasion by Jane Austen.
Hello again, everyone. It is great to be back with you this month to talk about Jane Austen. I should say from the beginning that I know Bookish Catholics has a number of Jane Austen devotees, and so I hope I don't waste your time telling you things you already know.
Where to start? Well, I may as well tell you that Persuasion is my favorite Jane Austen novel. I know that Pride and Prejudice is the choice for most people--and it is a wonderful book--but I have always liked Persuasion better, even though the ending has some flaws. No spoilers--I mean only that because Austen passed away, the last chapter seems not to have been fully revised. To me, the end lacks the polish of her other prose. Even so, Persuasion remains my favorite, and for my money, it contains one of the best literary love letters I know of, even better--yes, I will say it--than Darcy's to Lizzie.
As always for Austen, marriage is of primary concern, and I think of all Austen's novels, Persuasion considers marriage the most. Through our single heroine, Anne, Austen shows us the difficulty and challenge of finding the right person to marry, but the novel also presents a number of different models for what a married couple can be.
So what can marriage be like? First up are Charles and Mary Musgrove, who seem to present a model that is less than ideal. Charles is dutiful but distant from Mary. Mary cares for their children to the extent that she can do so without their displacing herself as the center of attention. As Austen says, Charles and Mary “might pass for a happy couple,” but once we spend some time with them, we see below that surface level. They often do not agree nor do they communicate about those differences; both resort to passive/aggressive behavior towards the other.
The Harvilles, who we meet in chapter 11, exemplify another type of marriage, and perhaps they represent what could have become of Anne and Wentworth had they been married when Anne was 19. They seem happy enough, but their house is always stretched to the limit in activity and money. When Anne and the others come to visit them in Lyme, for example, Benwick has to move out because there is not enough space for him.
Captain Benwick, who we also meet in Lyme, although he is single, also shows a third possibility for Anne. Benwick has lost the love of his life, and we can interpret him, perhaps, as a potential inverse of Anne. Had she and Wentworth married and Wentworth continued his naval career, perhaps Anne would have lost her love in the line of duty as Benwick has lost his love due to illness. Austen goes out her way to note that Anne and Benwick are similar to one another—even Anne recognizes it—and so here is another version of what married life might have been like for our heroine.
The first married couple we meet, the Admiral and Mrs. Croft, provide a final possibility for Anne (the Crofts are, incidentally, my favorite literary married couple).* The Crofts are always together, and Austen goes on at length the emphasize this. We learn in chapter 4, for example, that the Crofts have been travelling together and have just returned to England. Chapter 8 features a long discussion of whether wives of sailors should be allowed on naval ships, and Mrs. Croft expresses definite opinions about this matter. At one point, Austen’s describes the Crofts—who have been married for a long time—as acting “in a way not endurable to a third person.” Clearly the romance is alive in their relationship.
So, as Anne navigates her life—the move from Kellynch, seeing Captain Wentworth again, meeting Benwick—she encounters different examples of what married life can look like. Austen puts Anne in the position of being able to see how differently relationships can function and so that she can determine what she herself might wish.
*The Crofts are also responsible for one of my favorite scenes in all of the novels I know. But I don’t want to spoil that for you!