It had been raining for two days solid. Was this the reason for such a good attendance at our discussion? – this week there were no outdoor distractions such as golf, gardening or Munro-bagging, due to the dreadful weather. Or was it simply the attraction of Jane Austen?
Ten of us filled the room, with three squeezed onto one sofa. The only absent member, an admirer of Austen, had sent two longish e-mails from the battlefields of France.
Our host reminded us that Austen died over 200 years ago: July 1817, probably of Hodgkin’s lymphoma. To mark the date, there had been an exhibitionWhich Jane Austen? at the University of Oxford’s Bodleian Libraries, opened by none other than Scottish author Ali Smith, whose book Autumn we were reading last year. To quote Smith, we should “celebrate above all Jane Austen’s merry, merciful, merciless, versatile eye, ……her unparalleled understanding of the human need for and love not just of narrative, but its structural workings and fulfilments”.
Some of us confessed to never having read Jane Austen’s novels whilst others had studied them at degree level, and still had essays to prove it. Most of us came to the meeting with falling-apart dog-eared copies of Persuasion. One had been a childhood gift, decades ago, from a grandmother. But those with Kindles could rapidly produce the amusing quotes that added much to the buzz of the meeting.
Persuasion was one of Austen’s last works, the title having been added after her death. She wrote six novels published over a period of seven years, then died, aged 41, at the height of her powers. One member remarked “Oh, what would she have gone on to write, what a pity she died so young”. Our emailing member reminded us of a point we made several years ago:
“…a number of great artists, if a minority, have been fortunate enough to produce a work at the end of their career which fittingly rounds off their life’s work. For example, Shakespeare’s ‘Final Plays’ fall into that category, with their magical and uplifting exploration of issues of love and time. Thomas Hardy’s The Well-Beloved, at the end of his career as a novelist, gives his characteristically quirky take on the themes of love and time. We felt that in Memories of my Melancholy Whores – probably his last work of fiction – Gabriel García Márquez had produced his own meditation on time, aging and love.”
He felt that Jane Austen in her very different way in this novel has also produced a meditation on time, aging and love, not to mention also the role of women and men in society.
In Persuasion, published in 1817 shortly after her death, the author writes about her own world – the ordinary people of the time and place – the Regency period in the south of England. The Industrial Revolution was in full swing, slavery had not yet been abolished and the Empire continued to expand. However, these momentous events do not impinge on the novel, which centres on the actions of the Elliots – a well-to-do family headed by the vain and self-satisfied baronet Sir Walter Elliot, including three daughters Elizabeth, Anne and Mary. They live in the ancestral home Kellynch Hall in Somerset, but when Sir Walter’s extravagances leave them in debt it becomes necessary to move to Bath. The novel is written from the viewpoint of Anne, who at the tender age of 19 had fallen in love and accepted a proposal of marriage from a handsome young naval officer Frederick Wentworth. However, she had been persuaded by her family to break off the engagement as Wentworth was not from the ‘right sort’ of family and was not rich. It is this persuasion, and several other persuasions throughout the plot, that gives the novel its name. A decade later, Anne was rumoured by friends and acquaintances to be about to marry a distant relative, William Elliot, who happens to be the heir presumptive of Sir Walter. She is torn apart with anguish when her true love Wentworth re-appears. After a successful naval career he has become wealthy. However, social conventions, pride and bad timing prevent the two from meeting properly and declaring their love, but finally after several chance encounters he writes a passionate love letter to her. Meanwhile, Elliot turns out to be a manipulative scoundrel, and Anne marries her true love Frederick.
The novel exposes the social conventions of the period. Young men and women of the titled rich were expected to marry ‘well’, into a ‘good’ family, and persuasion by parents, siblings and friends was the norm. Marriage was seen as an economic arrangement. Social life around the big houses of the day was elaborate, intense and gossipy. Matches were made, and women must have felt progressively humiliated if they remained spinsters. What was a thirty-something spinster expected to do with her life? Needlework and walks in the countryside, charitable activities and perhaps artistic pursuits were possible of course. The men on the other hand were capable of entertaining themselves as men usually do: the hunting of rats in the barn seemed to be a popular male pursuit in this novel! The social skills of the era and especially etiquette are well portrayed: a man needed to develop charm and good manners to attract the Regency lady, even though his thoughts may have been operating at rat level.
Austen herself was never married, although she seemed to like men. She was engaged at a young age but for just one day before deciding that her betrothed, one Harris Bigg-Wither, was not the one for her. Our email member wondered why all Austen’s male rogues have names that begin with “Wi” or “Wy”. Perhaps this was an unconscious sexual echo by the maiden Jane.
Regarding match-making and social convention, we saw parallels with some British Muslim and Sikh communities in modern times, where parents strive to find suitable partners for their offspring, resorting sometimes to cousin marriage to retain cultural values, family wealth and to strengthen family ties. In Regency Britain, the pool of eligible young men was restricted geographically, and the situation was exacerbated as many men failed to return from the wars.
The novel does not delve into the social injustices of Regency society – we noted the contrast between Austen’s work and the much later Victorian novels of Charles Dickens which explicitly portray poverty. The work of Dickens was avidly read and became politically influential for social change, but Austen’s novels sold less although the Prince of Wales (then Regent, later becoming George 1V) was a big fan. She made very little money from her work (to be exact, she made 38 pounds, 18 shillings and one penny, which would be about £3,000 in today’s money). She became popular from 1883 onwards, following the publication of illustrated editions and collectors’ sets.
There were other female authors of her era who did influence public opinion and hastened the move to social reform. Fanny Burney (1752 –1840) sold far more books in her day – her work covered similar ground to Austen’s. She wrote more than Austen, she was more political, and wrote a famous horrendous account of her own mastectomy in her diary. Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797) was another author of the period, writing two novels which highlighted the subordinate position of women, although her most famous work is non-fiction – A Vindication of the Rights of Woman: with Strictures on Political and Moral Subjects. Wollstonecraft died 11 days after giving birth to the daughter we know as Mary Shelly, author of Frankenstein. Maria Edgeworth (1768-1849) wrote prolifically about education, corresponded with Walter Scott, and provided practical support for the victims of the Irish potato famine. Ann Radcliffe (1764-1823) was a definite influence: Austen’s Northanger Abbey satirised The Mysteries of Udolpho, one of the Radcliffe novels. All four of these women were famous in their day and might have had much to talk about with Austen had they ever met. However, they are largely forgotten, known only to scholars. Jane Austen on the other hand has become progressively more famous, her work having been adapted to films and TV series. Why the fame? We don’t really know – but perhaps she is the one who best portrays the upper classes during the Regency’s ‘mini-Renaissance’ of culture and refinement.
One of our members thought Persuasion to be ‘a savage book’, citing DW Harding’s Regulated Hatred and Other Essays on Jane Austen. According to this thesis, Austen fires bullets at all the characters except navy men (her brother was in the navy, and she probably had an admiration for that career). Most of us thought the word ‘savage’ was a bit strong, but perhaps not so when her critique is calibrated according to her usual genteel and highly nuanced style of writing. This style is her hallmark. Walter Scott liked it: he said she was a ‘miniaturist’ contrasting to his own ‘bow-wow’ approach. Virginia Wolfe’s 1925 review of a new edition of Austen’s collected works, published in The New Republic was more circumspect. Wolfe marks out Persuasion as being special among the novels – signalling a new period of Austen’s own development:
She is beginning to discover that the world is larger, more mysterious, and more romantic than she had supposed. We feel it to be true of herself when she says of Anne: “She had been forced into prudence in her youth, she learned romance as she grew older—the natural sequel of an unnatural beginning.”
This raises the question of how far the character Anne Elliot is Jane herself. The two have much in common – an early love affair, a gentrified upbringing, and a sudden family translocation to Bath. But some of us thought Jane herself would have been far more assertive, not holding back in matters of the heart. It’s a pity that most of her letters were destroyed after her death, so we know rather little of her private life. They were destroyed by family members allegedly because they satirised and ridiculed acquaintances – Austen had a wicked streak that often offended. However, there could well have been other motives for destroying these letters – matters of the heart or business affairs with her publisher for example. According to the on-line publicity for the Bodlean show: The exhibition presents Austen as a risk-taking businesswoman and a wartime writer who was informed and inspired by the international adventures of her family members. That’s quite different from what most people imagine she was like, and at variance with the impressions we have of her emotional character from Virginia Wolfe’s article:
There is an expressed emotion in the scene at the concert and in the famous talk about woman’s constancy which proves not merely the biographical fact that Jane Austen had loved, but the aesthetic fact that she was no longer afraid to say so.
Members who were re-reading the novel after many years said they liked it even more than they did the first time. “A book to read in one’s maturity” someone said. “Autumnal” said another.
We discussed readability. Those of us new to Austen, and more accustomed to our own worlds of reading and writing as a means of communicating facts, had struggled with the lengthy sentences. Whilst important in expressing emotional feelings it seems they detract from the plot. We wondered: did people really speak like that in the Georgian era; it’s silly, it takes so long to come to the point? Later, I looked up the sentence lengths of various authors: Austen, 20 words; Dickens, 17; Conan Doyle, 15. It’s a small variation but it seems more.
The plot? “Isn’t it a bit Mills & Boon” said one of our members, grinning. There was general agreement that the plot is predictable, and that the ending proceeds too rapidly– but we had in mind that she had been ill and hardly able to work for the last year of he life. Also, unlike her early novels, she did not have time to receive comments from family members and to re-write parts as she customarily did. This may be why Persuasion, consciously or otherwise, has the character of a last and quite different work.
Humour? One member found humour in every paragraph. Well, subtle humour maybe. Skilful understatement and irony are done well. Sometimes the humour is not so subtle, like Colonel Wallis’s impressions of Bath:
“The worst of Bath was, the number of its plain women… He had frequently observed that .. one handsome face would be followed by thirty, or five and thirty frights… he had counted eighty-seven women go by, one after another, without there being a tolerable face among them .. there certainly were a multitude of ugly women in Bath; and as for the men! they were infinitely worse.”
Scarcely an evening at the bookgroup goes by without some reference to football. One member commented that the above quote from Colonel Wallis is nearly identical to the one about the town of Barnsley by the Macedonian footballer Georgi Hristov, (then) recently bought by Barnsley Football Club. He could have been thinking of nothing other than the passage from Persuasion, Volume 2, Chapter III when he said:
“I’m finding it difficult to find a girlfriend in Barnsley, or indeed settle into a decent way of life. The local girls are far uglier than the ones back in Belgrade or Skopje, the capital of Macedonia, where I come from. Our women are much prettier. Besides, they don’t drink as much beer as the Barnsley girls which is something I don’t like at all.”
We enjoyed the novel. The author writes about the world she knows so well, and thus remains in complete control of her material. Her use of language to express Anne’s anguish is exquisite. We liked her delicate use of understatement and irony, and the way she exposes the precarious economic position of women of the era as well as the difficult choices young women faced as a result of family pressure and social constraints. There is a faint hint of the coming social changes: this is the tipping point between the time when wealth was entirely in the hands of the landed gentry, and the modern era. Wentworth, who started as a poor midshipman but advanced his rank and fortune through capturing enemy vessels, has been described as the prototype of the self-made man. Many a man made his fortune through war.
It was time to go home. As I reached in my pocket to retrieve keys, I came upon a £10 note, the 2017 plastic one with Jane Austin’s portrait. How remarkable that a woman who was little-known in her own lifetime has become a literary icon, sharing ten-pound note status with the likes of Charles Darwin, Florence Nightingale and Charles Dickens. Winston Churchill only made it to the fiver.