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!

14 comments:

  1. I love this, Ken! Thank you so much. I've never lined up all the marriages in Persuasion like this before, and it is very interesting. It will give me a new perspective as I reread this favorite.

    The Crofts! THE CROFTS!!! Long live the Crofts!!! Yes, my favorite Jane Austen couple of all time. And unlike ANY other couple she wrote about in any of her novels. I think that, as Jane Austen wrote this at the end of her life, they were her heart's desire. If she could have written her own story, she would have been one half of that couple.

    Keep the writing coming Ken!!

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  2. Oh, thank you for this! Persuasion is my favorite Austen novel and the Crofts are my favorite couple, also! I'm so excited to hear a scholar side with Persuasion over Pride and Prejudice, although the former is a great work, also. I agree with what Lauren wrote above. The Crofts are portrayed with love and a wistfulness and I love them as much as Austen apparently did.

    Of all Austen heroines, I relate most to Anne and Darcy comes in third for me when it comes to Austen men, after Wentworth and Knightley.

    I think Persuasion is the most passionate Austen novel, in its tone, the depth of the characters, descriptions of place in relation to character exposition, and the plot, not just in terms of passion as people normally think of as related to romance. That's why I love the 2007 movie adaptation, because although small liberties are taken and every single detail of the novel is not portrayed, the movie captures the breathless feel and passionate strength of the novel. I think I'm in the minority on this position among my local lovely Janeites, though! Although I will concede the portrayal of the Crofts in the earlier adaptation is lovely.

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    1. The "latter", not the "former" in my third sentence above:)

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    2. Without having read the novel, I definitely prefer the storyline of Persuasion. I love the theme of second chances, of love being tested and in fire and enduring! :) I might be in the minority, too!

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  4. Terri, I have a colleague here who also likes Persuasion best. His wife strongly favors P&P, so you can imagine that has resulted in a number of discussions over dinner and a glass of wine!

    I, too, like Anne and Wentworth more than Darcy and Lizzie (though, of course, Darcy and Lizzie are wonderful). Anne and Wentworth are a bit older, and that is part of what I like about them. That age difference (between Anne & Wentworth and Darcy & Lizzie) has, I think, some important thematic implications for the novel--and those themes are why I like Persuasion over P&P. But....that's a conversation for a time when we're closer to February 18, and we're near the end of the book. :)

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  5. As usual...I am the member with the least knowledge of any of these books and yes, I realize this will be shocking to many of you, but this is my first Jane Austen novel EVER. I was a little nervous to even begin trying to read this book (I think I mentioned this to you Lauren). I even listened to the first LibroVox recording and while I pride myself on being able to multi-task, listening to the book and doing the dishes proved too difficult for my mind to fully grasp Jane Austen. I digress....what I am trying to say is this post piqued my interest to the point of trying again and actually sitting and listening and even eventually reading Persuasion. I am loving it so far and God willing, I hope to have it finished by Monday's meeting! So thank you, Dr. Bugajski, for lighting a fire under me and although I can't claim to be the Jane Austen groupie some of these gals are - I am definitely becoming a fan!

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  6. I find myself wishing and wishing that we could back up 8 years and meet Anne and Frederick when they had first been engaged. I also found myself wondering if my husband and I had been thwarted in our relationship (which at the hand of a few well-intentioned family members, it might have happened) how we would be if we had re-connected years later. It amazes me that both Anne and Frederick were able to kindle that love for one another, and maintain their connection (even if it was not affectionate at first the second time around). The subtleties in the novel showing how well they knew each other after so much time had passed, almost if they had been married all along in their hearts. I have not read all of Austen's works, but I really admire how Persuasion stands out. Coming from someone who always got picked last in kickball, it's great to root for a Heroine who finally gets her happy ending!

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  7. Cecilia, if my post helped you to give Austen another shot, then that makes me very happy! Even if you don't become an Austen groupie, it is great that you gave it a second try. :)

    And Julia, a number of the reasons why you like Persuasion are very similar to why I like it. This weekend, I am going to write one last blog post on that very subject, so that is on its way!

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