Monday, February 25, 2013

Final Reflections 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 read Persuasion by Jane Austen.)

Persuasion is, as I said, my favorite Austen novel. One thing I like about it, and what sets it above Pride and Prejudice for me, is the importance of the past and the novel’s sense of loss. Now, that may seem a strange reason to like a book, but...I'll get to that.

There are a number of losses in Persuasion that stand out from Austen's other work. Of course, Sir Walter is a widower. We don’t get too much information about his wife, but Chapter 1 suggests that she was the kind of woman who made her husband a better man. An older character who is a widow or widower is not uncommon in Austen, but there is also Benwick, who is near the same age as our main characters. Benwick has also lost his love, and there really isn't any other character in Austen's novels who has had a loss--and a reaction to that loss--quite like Benwick. And though it is only temporary, Anne and Wentworth have, of course, also lost their loves. The permanence of Sir Walter's and Benwick's losses reflect on our main couple, and the knowledge that there are instances where lost love cannot be recovered heightens the drama when Wentworth and Anne meet again.

There is an autumnal feel to Persuasion as well, and Julia's favorite quotation (that she posted to Facebook) presents one passage where Austen incorporates this idea of autumn. There are others too, though they are small passages that are easy to miss. In chapter 5, for example, Anne dreads having to go to Bath and grieves having to miss "the influence so sweet and so sad of the autumnal months in the country." Later in Lyme, Anne reflects on the beauty of autumn when out walking. In literature, autumn is, almost always, a symbol of endings. Like Benwick and Sir Walter, these autumnal shadows increase the stakes for our heroine and hero. Anne and Wentworth are older, and they are in their own autumns--at least as far as being an eligible bachelorette and bachelor goes. One gets the sense this is their last chance before winter sets in.

Let me be clear here: I love Pride and Prejudice; it is a great novel, and surely Austen's prose in this novel is unmatched. But Pride and Prejudice--for all its sparkling wit and heightened romance--is spring and summer. Lizzie and Darcy face their obstacles and challenges, to be sure, but to be honest, from the first time Darcy refuses to dance with Lizzie, I never doubt they’ll end up together. For Lizzie and Darcy, it is all new beginnings; Pride and Prejudice is a book about falling in love.

Persuasion, though, is different in its emphasis. Anne and Wentworth have already fallen in love, long before the time when the novel begins. Their early relationship is marked by mistakes, and those mistakes have long-term consequences for both characters. Persuasion acknowledges that the past influences the present, that mistakes will be made, that lovers will hurt one another, and that heartbreaking loss exists. But love still wins. For Anne and Wentworth, it is all about choosing to begin again. For me, Persuasion is a book about being married--and that's why I like it better.

Friday, February 8, 2013

Only Anne, by Dr. Ken Bugajski

When we talked about North and South last fall, I nattered on about identity and the ways different aspects of Margaret Hales life and identity shift in the early chapters of the novel. Throughout Persuasion, Annes identity changes, too, but her story is different than Margarets journey.

To start thinking about Annes identity, we can look at what Austen says about her early in the book. When Austen introduces this character in Chapter 1, she writes, Anne, with an elegance of mind and sweetness of character, which must have placed her high with any people of real understanding, was nobody with either father or sister; her word had no weight, her convenience was always to give way;--she was only Anne.

The first descriptions of a character are always important. Just like in life when we meet someone new, we will form important first impressions. Authors know this as well as anybody, and so their initial descriptions of characters will always tell us something useful. In this case, we learn that in her family, Anne is neither respected nor cared for, and you might even go so far as to say she lacks an identity. Anne, after all, was nobody.

But then we get some surprising information: a few years earlier, Anne had been a very pretty girl, but her bloom had vanished early . . . now she was faded and thin. So, *thats* interestingAnne used to be quite pretty. What happened that caused her bloom to fade? 

(Austen answers this directly, by the way, a few paragraphs into chapter 4, when she repeats that ideaearly loss of bloomas the result of some past events.)

Austen gives us these pieces of information right next to each other, separated only by the brief introduction of Lady Russell. Because these two descriptions of Anne are so close together, it is perhaps not too big of a leap to see a connection between Annes physical appearance (faded and thin) and Annes personality (Annewas nobody). We might keep that relationship between physical attractiveness and perception of personality in the back of our minds as the book continues.

So, if you remember Margaret Hale, her identity was destabilized when all of the different aspects of her life were changed due to the move to Milton, and she had to reshape her identity in the face of enormous change. For Anne, things are a bit different. She still faces changes (specifically a change of location, just like Margaret), but she starts the story without a defined identityshe is nobody. The Big Question for her is not Can she reshape her identity? but: Can she be anybody at all?

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!
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