Follow-up ~ A Talk on ‘Persuasion’

[see our follow-up to the talk below…]

Kellogg-Hubbard Library,  135 Main St, Montpelier, Vermont

Wednesday, May 6, 2009 7pm

Powers of “Persuasion” a Vermont Humanities Council First Wednesdays 2008-2009 Classic Book Program by Bennington College Professor April Bernard

In her final superb novel, Persuasion, Jane Austen combined social satire with profound feeling. Why does this “fairy tale for grown-ups” continue to compel readers? How does Austen hold our attention and sympathy? And finally, who are some contemporary writers who might have learned some of Austen’s lessons?

April Bernard is a poet, novelist, and essayist who teaches literature and writing at Bennington College. Her most recent book is a collection of poems, Swan Electric.


Follow-up to the gathering from Janeite Kelly:

Thanks to the Vermont Humanities Council and the Kellogg-Hubbard Library, this event drew a nice little crowd of readers interested in Persuasion and Austen. The Q&A session was amazingly robust!

Prof. Bernard brought up some useful and though-provoking points — including this comment on Austen novels: THEY’RE NOT JUST GIRLS’ BOOKS!! And that was undoubtedly bourne out, if not in her Bennington College classrooms, in the men comprising a portion of the audience for this evening’s lecture!

Some points brought up for discussion: The narcissism of Sir Walter Elliot; the brilliance of Samuel Johnson’s writing (admired by many Austens, including – of course! – Jane); how writers are also avid readers; and some tricks whereby Prof. Bernard teaches writing to her students.

She introduced some ‘nuggets’:

In Austen’s novels the YOUNG end up showing the ELDER generation how one should act and react in life; the ‘old’ versus ‘new’ order, if you will.

One point I had never thought about before, that the NAVY in the characters of Admiral and Mrs Croft – self-made, responsible, wealthier – in essence TAKE OVER from where the gentry, in the form of Sir Walter, have left off (’abondoned ship’, if I can be allowed to think of it that way!). Austen, of course, had her own Naval brothers – men who pulled themselves up through the ranks, and ended up with rank, a title, and some amount of wealth.

One audience member asked where the idea of ‘a fairy tale for adults’ (used in the advertising) fit into her idea of Persuasion. Prof Bernard responded: Second chances at happiness. Children, she said, know fear, hunger (the subjects of traditional fairy tales, yes?) — but children do NOT know disappointment. Anne knew just such a debilitating feeling, and Austen gave this ‘past her bloom’ woman a second chance. We should all live such ‘fairy tale’ lives!

Follow-up from Janeite Deb:

Kelly summarizes nicely some of the main points of Prof. Bernard’s talk on Persuasion – the younger generation proving the older generation wrong [in most of Austen’s writings,  but esp. in Persuasion] by criticizing the establishment; the “fairy-tale” quality of Anne and Wentworth’s second chance at happiness; the Crofts taking over Kellynch Hall as a symbol of Austen’s democratic view of men being able to rise in society by their own efforts.

Prof Bernard emphasized Austen as a “conservative” writer, i.e. as a follower of Johnson, Austen writes of a conventional reality, her code of conduct and moral compass clearly defined in her novels [with Mansfield Park being her most conservative work].  But Berhard views Persuasion as a departure from this for Austen, with this more “democratic” view of society’s changing possibilities, her criticism of the Peerage in the guise of Sir Walter and the rise of the Navy which makes Wentworth an eligible partner for Anne, a lateral social move so to speak.  Bernard also points out how for the first time, Austen has Anne speak in quite radical terms in her speech to Harville that Wentworth [thankfully!] overhears [though not radical for the times, this feminist-speak IS radical for Austen].

Austen’s writing technique is what interests Bernard –  her creative writing classes must be fabulous! – She believes that Austen in this her last completed work was experimenting with her writing, her use of direct vs. indirect discourse most pronounced here.  And Bernard makes a great point about Austen as a creator of the “surrogate writer” in her works, as in Emma, where Emma is writing her own “bad” novels with all her matchmaking stories; and in Persuasion when Anne becomes annoyed with Mr. Elliot for trying to write her own story or to tell her who she is. 

Bernard does make one point that I would like to put out there as a query and field your thoughts:  All of Austen’s books have the “happy ending” we like to see in our “fairy-tale” romances [and in Persuasion we are given her only equal and nearly perfect union in the marriage of Admiral and Mrs. Croft], but Bernard does say quite strongly that these pleasing endings do not all end in happy marriages:  Emma, she says, married her father in Mr. Knightley, and she will spend a lifetime being told what to do by him; and in Mansfield Park, Fanny and Edmund will not live happily ever after because Edmund clearly does not really love Fanny.  [this is perhaps why there are such a spate of sequels?!] – [and I should also add that I do not agree with this outcome for Emma and Fanny, but that is why I request your musings…and Kelly and I will post more on this later…]

So please share with us your thoughts on the “happily ever after” of Austen’s marriages?