Saturday, February 02, 2019

Jane Austen, Persuasion


Opening Passage:

Sir Walter Elliot, of Kellynch Hall, in Somersetshire, was a man who, for his own amusement, never took up any book but the Baronetage; there he found occupation for an idle hour, and consolation in a distressed one; there his faculties were roused into admiration and respect, by contemplating the limited remnant of the earliest patents; there any unwelcome sensations, arising from domestic affairs changed naturally into pity and contempt as he turned over the almost endless creations of the last century; and there, if every other leaf were powerless, he could read his own history with an interest which never failed. This was the page at which the favourite volume always opened:

"Walter Elliot, born March 1, 1760, married, July 15, 1784, Elizabeth, daughter of James Stevenson, Esq. of South Park, in the county of Gloucester, by which lady (who died 1800) he has issue Elizabeth, born June 1, 1785; Anne, born August 9, 1787; a still-born son, November 5, 1789; Mary, born November 20, 1791."

Summary: There is a common error (I find it often in philosophical discussions of moral testimony, and elsewhere) that, if you just have the right moral understanding, you have all that you need in order to make moral decisions. This is certainly not true, and Persuasion is a good argument that it is not. Prudence needs material with which to work, and it deals with things that are sometimes so uncertain that the most prudent person in the world might nonetheless stand a chance of getting them wrong. When Anne is convinced by her friend Lady Russell to break off her engagement with Captain Wentworth, she does nothing wrong, and acts with a good moral understanding. The source of advice was one that was generally reliable. Further experience and thought will show it clearly, of course, to be the wrong decision. But Anne herself concludes that its being good or bad in this circumstance probably depended more on the outcome than the advice itself Persuasion is a work that faces squarely "the uncertainty of all human events and calculations", as Lady Russell calls it at one point. Advice that should have been good turns out to be bad, and vice versa. When new evidence appears, old appearances can be shown to have deceived. Some things are only obvious in hindsight. When dealing with people, including oneself, actual experience is irreplaceable. Sometimes the solution to a problem was there the whole time, and we were just sabotaging our ability to find it, without realizing it. Everybody needs a little luck sometimes. And there will be times when we cannot make the right decision at all without the right help from the right people at the right time. There is no avoiding these truths, no matter how prudent you are.

Cat noted in the comments that, in contrast with a work like Pride and Prejudice, Persuasion is a book of experience. It is certainly true that time is a constant theme in the work: we are all running out of time, and yet we all need time in order to understand ourselves, other people, and the world, which we must if we are not to have wasted all the time we have.

Of all the Austen heroines, Anne has generally been my least favorite; she has a sort of constant melancholy reflectiveness about her that I find a little wearying sometimes. And a remarkable amount of her thought throughout the story is devoted to reflecting on Captain Wentworth, which I also find wearying. I suppose I don't really have a taste for much exposure to the thoughts of a girl in love. Nonetheless, there is much that is admirable about her; her failings are minor and entirely human, but she is in a state of improvement throughout the whole novel. It is noticeable that her fortunes start to turn when she is distracted from her melancholy, and her reunion with Mrs. Smith -- very much not a melancholy person, despite having in many ways had an even worse life than Anne's not very good one -- seems to have done her a great deal of good in making her look at the world in a new way.

Persuasion often gets criticized for its 'unfinished' quality; it's very likely that Austen would have made substantive changes had she had more time. As is often the case, however, some of the criticisms are not really justified. There are no flat characters in the work. I've largely come to dismiss any criticism that talks about flat characters; such criticism is usually based on a narrow and arbitrary notion of how characterization works. I can see to some extent how one might think some of the characters in this work are 'flatter' than those in Austen's other works, but I think a great deal of this is due to the fact that we spend so much time in Anne's head, and see so much from Anne's perspective. We certainly have more limited information about many of the characters. But this is not the same as saying that they are not well-rounded. When we are talking about Jane Austen, we are talking about someone who can pack a lot of characterization into a few sentences, and she does not in any way fall down on this here.

Virginia Woolf has a more substantive and nuanced criticism of the work:

Let us take Persuasion, the last completed novel, and look by its light at the books she might have written had she lived. There is a peculiar beauty and a peculiar dullness in Persuasion. The dullness is that which so often marks the transition stage between two different periods. The writer is a little bored. She has grown too familiar with the ways of her world; she no longer notes them freshly. There is an asperity in her comedy which suggests that she has almost ceased to be amused by the vanities of a Sir Walter or the snobbery of a Miss Elliott. The satire is harsh, and the comedy crude. She is no longer so freshly aware of the amusements of daily life. Her mind is not altogether on her object. But, while we feel that Jane Austen has done this before, and done it better, we also feel that she is trying to do something which she has never yet attempted. There is a new element in Persuasion, the quality, perhaps, that made Dr. Whewell fire up and insist that it was “the most beautiful of her works”. She is beginning to discover that the world is larger, more mysterious, and more romantic than she had supposed.

Woolf might well be right that Austen is at an in-between stage with the book. I am immensely skeptical of the idea that this is because she is discovering "that hte world is larger, more mysterious, and more romantic than she had supposed"; Woolf goes on to suggest that there is a "new sensibility to nature", for instance, while I think this is obviously an extension of previous picturesque interests that here interact more directly with broader Romantic topics. Austen may or may not be bored; the satire is certainly harsh, but the comedy is not in fact crude -- it is, if anything, considerably more ironic in character. Comparison with the sadly unfinished Sanditon suggests that Austen's satirical and comic interests were heading in a harsher direction, but there's nothing about the harshness that we have not in some way seen before. Woolf rightly notes that Austen is trusting in this work more to reflection than to dialogue, and private thought is always a harsher medium than conversation.

The most common criticisms of the work are the handling of the revelations about Mr. Elliott, which seems to come suddenly, by chance, and very indirectly. I cannot say that Austen would not have modified it in any respect had she had more opportunity, but there is in fact something fitting about the fact that Anne has to piece together the key conclusions by comparing indirect evidence with her own experience, and has to think through the matter critically (which she certainly does; the entire scene is an excellent example of good critical thinking). In many ways it shows Anne at her best, and shows how far she has come from the girl of nineteen who had to rely so heavily on the advice of others. One can complain about the fact that so much of this information comes to Anne by mere chance, but, as I have noted, a subtheme of the work is that even prudent people are sometimes at the mercy of chance. If there's anything to the criticism, I think it may just be the suddenness with which we discover everything. It's clear from the few things we know about Austen's late changes to the work that she had been reworking how Anne gets information about other things, so it can perhaps be argued that Austen still had some work to do in setting up, and then using, the big reveal about Mr. Elliott in a way that meshed with everything else.

I found this reading that I really enjoyed Charles Musgrave. Mary Musgrave on her own comes across as intolerable, but the Musgrave marriage actually seems to work because of Charles. It's probably true that a better wife would have improved Charles, as Lady Russell and Anne think, but there are certainly worse marriages. It's also remarkable how often things take a turn for the better just by Charles being his good-natured, uncurious, hunting-crazy self -- even though he himself is always oblivious to it. Whatever may be said about his failings, he doesn't make the world any worse, and he does make it at least a little better. There's something charming about that.

Favorite Passage:

"Oh! Charles, I declare it will be too abominable if you do, when you promised to go."

"No, I did not promise. I only smirked and bowed, and said the word 'happy.' There was no promise."

"But you must go, Charles. It would be unpardonable to fail. We were asked on purpose to be introduced. There was always such a great connexion between the Dalrymples and ourselves. Nothing ever happened on either side that was not announced immediately. We are quite near relations, you know; and Mr Elliot too, whom you ought so particularly to be acquainted with! Every attention is due to Mr Elliot. Consider, my father's heir: the future representative of the family."

"Don't talk to me about heirs and representatives," cried Charles. "I am not one of those who neglect the reigning power to bow to the rising sun. If I would not go for the sake of your father, I should think it scandalous to go for the sake of his heir. What is Mr Elliot to me?" The careless expression was life to Anne, who saw that Captain Wentworth was all attention, looking and listening with his whole soul; and that the last words brought his enquiring eyes from Charles to herself.

Recommendation: Highly Recommended, of course.

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