It’s that time of the semester when, once again, I find myself immersed in student essays. Recently I’ve been marveling at the many different approaches my students take to Jane Austen’s Persuasion, which is proving to be the most popular book in my first-year Austen seminar. (We’ve read all the major novels except for Pride and Prejudice.) The students have given me permission to share their ideas here.
Clare and Laura were both interested in issues of class, although they approached class from different ends of the spectrum. Clare, still buzzing from the election, used the novel to reflect upon how her views of America have been changing given that she was raised in a conservative gated community and attended Catholic schools. She identified with heroine Anne Elliot, who she felt was suffocated by her father, an irresponsible baronet overly fixated on the past. On the other hand, she thrilled to Anne’s relationship with Captain Wentworth, who offers her a far different future.
Noting that Anne does not initially accept Wentworth’s offer of marriage—her friends persuade her to reject it because his class status is low and his future uncertain—Clare tracked Anne’s growth and celebrated her determination to embrace his brave new world. Because of the Napoleonic wars, a new class of people (the navy) suddenly had the ability to climb the social ladder, and Clare said that the situation is comparable to what is happening in America, where formerly oppressed groups are finding new economic and political opportunities. She saw the novel’s final sentences as applicable to America’s changing landscape, and she felt that the risks of a changing order were worth whatever disruptions were involved:
Anne was tenderness itself, and she had the full worth of it in Captain Wentworth’s affection. His profession was all that could ever make her friends wish that tenderness less, the dread of a future war all that could dim her sunshine. She gloried in being a sailor’s wife, but she must pay the tax of quick alarm . . .
As the daughter of a marine, Laura entered Persuasion from the vantage point of the novel’s military figures. Laura said that she was accustomed to moving frequently when she was growing up—she loved seeing new places—so the marriage of Admiral and Mrs. Croft caught her fancy. After all, Mrs. Croft glories in her ability to travel:
“What a great traveller you must have been, ma’am!” said Mrs Musgrove to Mrs Croft.
“Pretty well, ma’am in the fifteen years of my marriage; though many women have done more. I have crossed the Atlantic four times, and have been once to the East Indies, and back again, and only once; besides being in different places about home: Cork, and Lisbon, and Gibraltar. But I never went beyond the Streights, and never was in the West Indies. We do not call Bermuda or Bahama, you know, the West Indies.”
Mrs Musgrove had not a word to say in dissent; she could not accuse herself of having ever called them anything in the whole course of her life.
Whereas Clare identified with Anne moving out of a static existence, Laura understood why the heroine, after once having tasted the possibility of mobility, would reject every other suitor to come her way. A mere estate suddenly sounds pretty tame when compared to a life of travel.
The other three students writing about Persuasion looked at the novel for what it teaches us about relationships. Genevieve, whose parents separated when she was young, went searching for the secrets of a good marriage. The key, she said, lies in both parties standing in their strengths. When people marry for bad reasons (Lady Elliot marries Sir Walter and Charles marries Mary for class reasons), they have bad marriages. The Crofts, by contrast, are both strong people and therefore have forged a good partnership. Genevieve appreciated the way that the Crofts collaborate in the driving of their carriage. Here the Admiral, talking to Anne, has allowed his attention to wander, but his wife is looking out for him:
“My dear Admiral, that post! we shall certainly take that post.”
But by coolly giving the reins a better direction herself they happily passed the danger; and by once afterwards judiciously putting out her hand they neither fell into a rut, nor ran foul of a dung-cart; and Anne, with some amusement at their style of driving, which she imagined no bad representation of the general guidance of their affairs, found herself safely deposited by them at the Cottage.
Tessa and Selene, meanwhile, used the novel to sort through second-chance relationships that both of them were experiencing. Both had turned away from relationships with boys in high school but were rediscovering those relationships now, so Anne’s situation spoke directly to them.
Selene, struck by how lacking self-confidence can lead one to turn down good relationships and step into bad ones, looked at how Anne builds up self-confidence in the course of the book. Tessa took a similar tack and looked at the stages that both Anne and Wentworth go through before finding each other once again. Both Tessa and Selene talked about the danger of rebound relationships and complimented Anne for avoiding a rebound marriage with Charles Musgrove.
In a passage from Before Novels that I’ve quoted before, my dissertation advisor J. Paul Hunter talks about how young people in the 18th and early 19th centuries turned to novels to help them understand their situations and make choices. In this course, some of these same novels are doing the same work with young people today.