I thought I was done…

When I finished the last post on Persuasion, I did a little happy dance in my head because I thought I was done.  However, it is a rainy, yucky afternoon, my husband is watching The Matrix movies AGAIN, so I find myself with the luxury of “chewing” on Persuasion a little more.  There are things that set this book apart from the others and there are questions that I want to think about a little more.  Here are some of my random “chewings”:

  • Was Lady Russel right about Anne & Frederick’s young romance? – This presents a unique conundrum for me.   The answer is yes and no…  At the age of twenty, my answer would have been a resounding NO!  How dare she keep them apart?  They were clearly in love and regardless of social class or financial status, they should have been allowed to marry and have a shot to live happily ever after! (This delivered with the utmost contempt and indignity.)  When someone is twenty, her view of life is often clouded with pride and the need to demonstrate to the world that she is self-sufficient enough to make her own decisions and, thereby, destroy her own life!  I have walked that path and can appreciate that response.  However, as someone whose twenties have rapidly faded in her rear view mirror, my answer would have to be that I agree with Lady Russel’s assessment of Anne and Frederick’s engagement.  Lady Russel is no villainess.  She has been around long enough to know that two people cannot “live on love,” and although there is Frederick’s confidence that “he should soon be rich,” he is described as somewhat of a bum.  He’s a spendthrift and isn’t exactly the kind of man we want our daughters to marry – certainly not in a time where the wife’s fate was directly dependent upon the husband’s success.  Was it the right call? Undoubtedly.  Frederick’s career in the navy was made possible because he was an unattached man with nothing to lose.  His success was to due to his own bravery in the face of danger and commitment to his profession.   Anne would have been a distraction at best and a hindrance at worst.
  • Who is Anne?  – Anne is drastically different in her situation than the other heroines Austen has given us.  All of our other Austen ladies have been in the blush of youth (17-21 years old), inexperienced, and at the entrance of adulthood. Anne Elliot is a completely mature twenty-seven and already schooled in lost love and the disappointments of life.  She knows regret and sorrow and has truly given up on finding love in her future.  Her personality is very measured and contained.  She isn’t exuberant or impetuous like Elizabeth or Emma; however, she isn’t a wilting violet like Fanny, either.  She’s already learned the lessons that Austen’s heroines often face.  Is Anne a representation of Austen’s hopes for herself?  Was she looking for a more mature love?  Or is this a reflection of her sister, Cassandra, who possessed a very reserved nature and maintained a devotion to a lost love?
  • Where did this very romantic story come from? – Maybe it’s just me, but this novel seems much more romantic that the others.  It seems that other characters must learn the hard lesson that there is more to a successful relationship than attraction and romance.  Most of the happier marriages are made through additional connections (family or longtime friends).  While Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy’s relationship has a romantic tone, there is still more going on there than simple devotion.  They are from the same social class and their personalities seems to compliment one another – (he’s an ass and she doesn’t let it bother her).   Some of her other novels highlight that the “torches” carried by lovers fade relatively quickly – Edmund Bertram’s fascination for Mary Crawford disappears quickly and Marianne forgets Willoughby to be perfectly happy with Col Brandon.  Yet, here Austen gives us this twenty-seven year old woman, in the “autumn” of her life, who is able to regain her youth and, by the end of the novel,  is granted a new spring and a fresh bloom.

These are just a few thing tumbling around in my head today.  I can’t wait to get to class and hear what others have to say!  This one is going to be one of my favorites, not because I love the characters, but because it feels like such a departure from the other books.  What might Austen have given us next if her death hadn’t taken her away so soon?

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Persuasion’s New Hero – the Sailor

Captain Frederick Wentworth is certainly an entirely different sort of hero than we have met thus far, which is fitting because Anne Elliot is a different sort of heroine. Thus far, we have had heroes who were worthy clergymen (Edmund Bertram in Mansfield Park, Henry Tilney in Northanger Abbey, and Edward Ferrars in Sense and Sensibility) and wealthy landowners (Mr. Darcy in Pride and Prejudice and Mr. Knightley in Emma).  Wentworth is a self-made man who rose in his profession on the basis of his own actions and accomplishments.  As always, Austen walks us through a social commentary as she presents her story.  In this case, it seems to be “out with the old and in with the new.”

There are three different sets of characters who either have or have had the responsibility of leading people into the new era.  The first group examined are those of “high birth” – Sir Walter Elliot and his relations, the Dalrymples.  To Sir Elliot and his social group, appearance is everything.  It doesn’t matter if an individual doesn’t really have wealth. The important thing is for him to appear that he has wealth.  These people are characterized by their vanity (ridiculous in the case of the unappealing Sir Walter) and the useless and empty lives that they lead.  Their inhospitable and snobbish natures combined with their extravagance and waste demonstrate that the traditional landed gentry is no longer capable of leadership as England moves into a new era.

Austen also gives us the “not much educated and not at all elegant” Musgroves.  These represent old-fashioned ideas and unwillingness to embrace a new way of thinking about class and worth.  They are a dying breed, evidenced by the fact that even their own children have “more modern minds and manners.”  However, even in light of the Musgroves’ failings, Austen isn’t too hard on them.  Anne certainly prefers them to her own family and admires their warmth of heart and sincerity.  Unfortunately, warmth of heart and sincerity are not enough to provide leadership for people moving into a modern age.

The third group of characters are the naval families.  Anne clearly admires their loyalty, liveliness, friendliness, and bravery.  She says, “Only they know how to live.”  This group of people have gained their worth through their own efforts, and their success is a direct result of their devotion to their profession.  (It also doesn’t hurt that these families represent the profession of two of Austen’s brothers).  Austen gives us Captain Benwick (brave but damaged by heartache), Admiral Croft (devoted and and brave), Captain Harville (industrious and level-headed), and of course, Captain Wentworth (“brilliant” and “headstrong” with “the frank, the open-hearted, the eager character” so admired by Anne).  These are the men and women whom Austen labels as ready to take England into the next century.  They understand hardships, sacrifice, danger, and loneliness because of their chosen professions.  These are the very things that leaders should truly understand before they attempt to lead anyone else.  Austen tells us that Anne “gloried in being a sailor’s wife.”  It is clear through Austen’s praise of the profession’s “domestic virtues” and “national importance” that Austen also gloried in being the sister to two distinguished sailors.

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So… You Want to Go Swimming in Regency England???

As an activity, sea-bathing wasn’t really popularized until the 1750s by Dr. Russell of Brighton, and it didn’t really take off until the  1780s when the Prince of Wales began to patronize the village of Brighton, bringing the more “raffish elements of upper-class society” with him.  The royal stamp of approval cleared the way for those who were hesitant to embrace the pastime of sea-bathing as not only acceptable, but desirable.  Other villages along the coast (many of the ones Austen used in her novels) began to compete for the patronage of the elite, thus drawing the fashionable away from Bath (Lane 110).

Sea-bathing was thought to have potential health benefits, and it was an activity Austen truly enjoyed.   We have an account in a letter written to her sister in September of 1804 which describes bathing at Lyme Regis as “so delightful” that she “stayed in rather too long” and wore herself out so much that she would avoid bathing on the following day.  Sea-bathing would have certainly been one of the few exhilarating activities, like dancing, in which unmarried females were allowed to indulge (Hannon 68-69).

All this discussion of characters spending time in the water brought some questions to my mind as to the logistics of getting a woman to the water without impropriety or sacrificing her modesty.  How did they accomplish this?  This was before the first “bathing suits” were advertised in the 1850s, so what did they wear into the water and how did they maintain their modesty?

The first thing I discovered was the use of “bathing machines.”  These were like cabanas on wheels.  They were “four-wheeled carriages, covered with canvas, and having at one end of them an umbrella of the same materials which is let down to the surface of the water, so that the bather descending from the machine by a few steps is concealed from the public view, whereby the most refined female is enabled to enjoy the advantages of the sea with the strictest delicacy” (Oulton).  bathing machineWomen would enter these bathing machines to disrobe down to their very flimsy muslin shifts (the equivalent of a slip) and be dragged/lowered into the sea by either a horse or an attendant referred to as a “bathing-woman” or “dipper”(Hannon 68-69).   The bather would then walk down the steps to enter the water.  This systems sounds quite civilized and quaint, but what about a woman who became timid or was too intimidated to enter the water on her own.  The solution was simple.  She was thrown in and forced under the water to prevent her from exposing herself to the eyes others.

Another element I also discovered was that in its infancy, sea-bathing was considered safest in the winter, or in the early morning hours when the “pores were closed.”   In November of 1782, the novelist and diarist Fanny Burney wrote, “We rose at six o’clock in the morn and by the pale blink o’ the moon went to the seaside where we had bespoken the bathing-woman to be ready for us, and into the ocean we plunged. It was cold but pleasant.  I have bathed so often as to lose my dread of the operation” (Lane 110).  This cold weather bathing would dampen one’s ardor and “minimize one’s faculties” for inappropriate behavior.

However, by 1814 (when Persuasion is set), the season for bathing had shifted from late November to warmer months.  (September and October were Austen’s favorite holiday months.)  When Anne and her crew arrive in Lyme in November, the town is described as “deserted and melancholy” with the assembly rooms shut down and “the lodgers almost all gone.”  It seems that by then, they had enough sense not to be swimming in the dead of winter, and by 1814, there was more to these resort towns than just the bathing.  They became social hubs with open air pleasures like walks along the harbor wall, the  Cobb.  There was plenty to keep the young people occupied outside of the sea-bathing for which Lyme was so well-known (Lane 110).

The advent of the “bathing suit” would not eliminate these “bathing machines” for nearly another hundred years.  In the 1890s they were parked on the beaches as changing rooms, and by 1914, most had disappeared altogether.  

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Austen’s Changing Views of the Seaside Resort

Austen uses seaside towns several times throughout her novels.  In Persuasion, we get the distinct impression that there is wholesome pleasure to be had in these resort towns; however, in other novels, she presents these retreats as morally lax and having the potential to inspire questionable behavior in young people.

Regency Weymouth

I first noticed her use  of the “resort town” in Emma.  Even though the title character has never seen the ocean, there are several places where the author mentions “watering-places,” the influences of which are not always presented in the most positive light.  In the novel, there is a comical debate about whether the benefits of sea air and sea-bathing warranted the  John Knightleys remaining at South Bend for that purpose.  Mr. Woodhouse reveals his opinion that “the sea is very rarely of use to any body” and that he’s “sure it almost killed” him once.  Another poor recommendation appears in the fact that Frank Churchill and Jane Fairfax met at Weymouth, a seaside resort town, where Jane’s secret engagement is referred to as her “acting contrary to all sense of right,” and where Emma suggests that “her [Jane’s] affection must have overpowered her judgement” (hasn’t that happened to all of us?) (Hannon 68-69).

In Pride and Prejudice, Mrs. Bennet declares, “A little sea-bathing would set me up forever.”  Mrs. Bennet’s declaration has far less to do with the potential benefits of the seaside than with Lydia’s quest to travel to Brighton in order to follow the regiment encamped there.  Elizabeth desperately tries to get her father to see the dangers that a trip to Brighton would pose for Lydia, and we all know how that turned out.  Lydia elopes with Mr. Wickham (well, sort of elopes… mostly lives in sin for a while) and brings shame to herself and her family.  Another of these resort towns, Ramsgate,  serves as the background for the attempted elopement of Georgiana Darcy with the same Mr. Wickham.

It seems that for Austen, towns like Brighton, Weymouth, and Ramsgate were her version of Panama City Beach on Spring Break where  there is the potential for all kinds of trouble, especially for foolish, impetuous young people.

As I make my way through Persuasion, there is s distinct departure from her tone of dire warning for the resort town, particularly in her fondness for the resort town of Lyme Regis, which is the setting for part of Volume I.  This is a seaside resort town, and apparently well-loved by Jane Austen herself.  In Persuasion, she describes Lyme at length, praising and celebrating its beauty and attraction saying, “these places must be visited, and visited again, to make the worth of Lyme understood.”  As Anne and the group make their way to the sea shore, Austen describes them as “lingering only, as all must linger and gaze on a first return to the sea, who ever deserves to look on it at all.”  This strikes me as a departure from the dire warnings that seems to appear in her earlier novels.  Maybe she developed a love for the seaside during the Austens’ tenure in Bath, a time when she traveled to places like Sidmouth, Dawlish, Teignmouth, Weymouth, and of course Lyme Regis (Hannon 68-69).

I’m not done with Persuasion yet, so I cannot say for certain that moral disaster isn’t lurking around the corner in Lyme, but so far, the worst thing that has happened there is that foolish Louisa, in her attempt to appear charming, cracked her skull – no real moral damage, and as we all know, moral damage is the only kind from which is it nearly impossible to recover. In the win column for the sleepy little resort, we have seen Anne confront and conquer the demons of her past relationship with Captain Wentworth, and we’ve met the much maligned Mr. Elliot who gives every impression of being a perfect gentleman (although, Austen has fooled me before…).

Maybe her time at Lyme changed her mind, or maybe her maturity lessened the dangerous temptations offered in these towns. Whatever the reason, in Persuasion, her attachment and fondness for ocean and resort towns is clear, and I am quite interested to see if the little town continues to remain unsullied in the story.

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Why Jane Austen Never Married

If one looks at Pride and Prejudice for evidence of it author’s commentary on thing such as social status, finances, social graces, familial relationships, marital relationships, and contentions relationships, there are certainly conclusions to be drawn about the author herself.  While all of these elements are key to the awesomeness of Pride and Prejudice,  I really felt like this novel gave me a glimpse of Austen’s refusal to marry.  We know she accepted a marriage proposal, acceptance which she withdrew within less than twenty-four hours.  I can’t help but wonder why a woman whose own novel observes that marriage was “the only honourable provision for well-educated young women of small fortune” would reject the institution so completely.   Could she have been such an idealist as to believe in love and only love as the basis for marriage?  I would argue that love in a marriage isn’t the ideal foundation of marriage Austen sought.  If we look at the weddings and discussions of weddings in Pride and Prejudice, we can see evidence of what Austen might have wanted for herself.

The motives for marriage in her age were clear – financial and social security.  The proper marriage could guarantee a young woman those two things – two things absolutely essential to a “well-educated young woman of small fortune,” like Austen herself.   We know that she recognized the mercenary value of marriage – evidenced by Charlotte Lucas marrying the despicable Mr. Collins.   Austen makes it clear that Charlotte has no affection whatsoever for the foolish, preening clergyman, yet she marries him to ensure food in her belly, clothes on her back, and roof over her head – not bad reasons given the Lucas family’s financial situation.  While Elizabeth Bennet doesn’t completely condemn her for her choice, she does acknowledge that things will never be the same between her and Charlotte.  If Austen held love as the ideal basis for forming a marriage, one would think that Austen (by way of Elizabeth) might take a harder stance on Charlotte’s marriage and its mercenary motives, but she doesn’t.  Fine… then what is she looking for?

What about Jane and Bingley?  I would argue that Jane and Bingley’s road to matrimony was so difficult because affection was the ONLY thing that connected them – obviously a tenuous and fragile connection.  They seemed destined to marry until Darcy’s interference.  Clearly “love” and mutual affection aren’t enough to solidify a union.  All Darcy had to do was suggest that Jane had no real love for Bingley, and Bingley abandoned his quest for her hand without ever considering that he should speak directly with Jane.  If Bingley had only had enough faith in Jane to have a straightforward and honest conversation with her, then a great deal of their angst could have been avoided.

Austen also shoots down foolish notions such as “love at first sight”  “Love” offers too many opportunities for deception and manipulation, and by no means, offers guaranteed success at the alter.  Elizabeth’s “engagement” to Wickham is evidence that the idea of love a first sight is simply ridiculous.  Not only did Elizabeth’s connection to Wickham fall apart, it ended in Wickham’s disgraceful behavior with Lydia.  Austen also addresses infatuation when she tells us that Lydia’s attachment was greatest wherever there was attention paid to her – hardly a better recommendation than “love at first sight. ” Wickham and Lydia’s motives for marriage are clearly disastrous as evidenced by their fate of living hand to mouth off of the generosity of their relations who made far better decisions in terms of matrimony than they.

Pride and Prejudice seems to indicate that Austen believed that there should be more to marriage than security, infatuation, or even love.  I think she lays it out beautifully and uses a character from whom we might not expect to receive any sage advice – Mr. Bennet.   His words for Elizabeth are incredibly wise:

“I know that you could be neither happy nor respectable, unless you truly esteemed your husband; unless you looked up to him as a superior.  Your lively talents would place you in the greatest danger in an unequal marriage.  You could scarcely escape discredit and misery.  My child, let me not have the grief of seeing you unable to respect your partner in life.”

His warning is insightful, and if we look at his own relationship with his wife, whom he treats with disdain and condescension throughout the entire novel, we see the result of a marriage made between two people without mutual respect for one another.

What makes Elizabeth and Darcy’s relationship different?

  • There is no “love at first sight.”  As a matter of fact, they detested one another for much of the first volume of the novel.  Neither thought the other attractive or pleasing in the least.
  • Financial security never enters into their equation.  We know that Darcy isn’t marrying Elizabeth for any sort of financial benefit – her inheritance is pitiful compared to the “ten thousand a year” that is bandied about during the novel.  As for Elizabeth, there will be a financial benefit to the union, but her decision to marry Darcy had nothing to do with money whatsoever.  If that had been her goal, she would have accepted his initial proposal instead of giving him the scathing refusal she dished out.
  • As for infatuation, that simply never exists between Elizabeth and Darcy.  In fact, they had to work up to even liking one another, and Darcy clearly fights his fascination with Elizabeth.   He isn’t even really physically attracted to her.  There are no “longing looks” exchanged or any outward signals that there is more to them than the shared antipathy they exhibit in the first volume.

It seems that according to society’s idea for the foundation of a successful marriage, Elizabeth and Darcy have absolutely nothing going for them.  There aren’t any ardent and public displays of affection.  There isn’t any angst and suffering over rejection.  There aren’t dashed hopes and disappointed dreams lying in their wake.   So, what is it that makes Elizabeth and Darcy work? – the very things that her father wishes for her that he neglected when he chose his own partner.  Respect and Equality… according to Pride and Prejudice, these are the keys to matrimony.

If respect and equality were indeed what Austen felt she needed to be fulfilled in a marriage, it’s little wonder that she remained single.  Those attributes are nearly impossible to find in our era of equality.  She would have had to find someone who could respect her and who would recognize her value in addition to finding someone to address the practical needs of a “young woman of small fortune” – certainly an impossible task.

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Truly Austen’s Novel

I am not a reader of Austen, and up until this novel, I have truly wondered what the big fuss was about.  I truly enjoyed  Emma, but the others didn’t make much of an impact on me.  They were okay, but I didn’t really get it.  However, Pride and Prejudice has truly opened my eyes. Austen referred to Pride and Prejudice as her “own darling child,” and I cannot agree more.  It feels like someone’s passion was poured into these characters, and I absolutely adore them – the good, the bad, and the ugly.

After the novel’s publication, Jane and Mrs. Austen took turns reading Pride and Prejudice aloud to their spinster neighbor, Mrs. Benn, who had no idea that Jane was the novel’s author.  Jane’s letters complain to her sister that her mother reads the passages too quickly and that she doesn’t get the characters’ voices right, but over all, Jane clearly adores her heroine:  “I must confess that I think her as delightful a creature as ever appeared in print, & how I shall be able to tolerate those who do not like her in the least, I do not know.”  According to her letters, there is very little that disturbs or disrupts the joy she finds in this novel, and the teasing, lighthearted tone of Elizabeth Bennet herself comes through in Jane’s letters to Casandra:

“Upon the whole however I am quite vain enough & well satisfied enough. – The work is rather too light & bright & sparkling; – it wants shade; – it wants to be stretched out here & there with a long Chapter – of sense if it could be had, if not of solemn specious nonsense – about something unconnected with the story; an Essay on Writing, a critique on Walter Scott, or the history of Buonaparte – or anything that would form a contrast & bring the reader with increased delight to the playfulness & Epigrammatism of the general stile.”

Whether it is a correct assumption or not, I feel like this was truly Jane Austen’s novel.  I find that I absolutely adore Elizabeth Bennett (maybe even more so than Emma).  She is able to laugh through most of the novel, including during moments of her own foolishness, and she is unfailingly honest with herself.  However, I may love her most for the lack of resentment she feels toward Darcy when he points out in his letter concerning her defense of Wickham that she was “blind, partial, prejudice, and absurd.”  I can’t speak for most women, but I don’t always react in a positive and productive manner when someone points out one of my flaws, especially if there is truth to the complaint.  Elizabeth takes his criticism to heart and admits the she may have harshly and wrongly judged Darcy.  Amazingly (to me),  she does this without any bitterness or attempts to blame someone else for her own foolishness in being taken in completely by Wickham. She ultimately finds a way to laugh at this as she does throughout the entire novel.  She laughs at the foolishness of herself and others.  However,  she isn’t always able to laugh.  She experiences real shame due to the unconscionable behavior of her family.  Elizabeth’s only real misery is almost always a result of  her mother’s lack of social graces and/or  her parents’ indulgence of their younger daughter’s foolishness and inexperience.  These moments are very uncomfortable for the reader as well as Elizabeth. I found myself looking for a way to bypass those uncomfortable spots in the novel so that I could get enjoy the fact that this novel is “too light & bright & sparkling.”

 

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Northanger Abbey – Random thoughts

  • This book feels like two novels in one.  The first half is set in Bath and revolves around a young woman’s entrance into the world, much like Fanny Burney’s Evelina.  The second half continues the theme but with a focus on Gothic style and the transition from the innocence and delusion of youth to the clear sight and understanding of adulthood.
  • Why does Catherine appeal to me when she is typically the kind of character that gets on my nerves?  Catherine is not witty or clever.  She certainly isn’t worldly or sophisticated, yet we love her anyway.  I think I can love her for the same reasons I love Emma – her unwavering loyalty to those she loves and her absolute honesty with herself and others.  She is also refreshingly unaffected and artless in a world full of people like Isabella and Captain Tilney.
  • Is Henry Tilney a representation of Austen herself?  To my mind, this is undoubtedly the case.  Even if it weren’t for Henry’s constant common sense that ties him to Austen, I would still argue that he and Austen have a great deal in common.  Jane Austen definitely had some “father issues,” and I can see much of her own frustration in the Tilney siblings’ relationship with their father.  The general is demanding and blustery; he is also machinating and superficial.  Is this a commentary on Austen’s own father? I think so.
  • What is it with Austen’s employing the “useless woman” in all her novels?  She gives us Mrs. Allen, with her passivity and milquetoast personality.  She is only helpful after Catherine takes an “inappropriate” ride alone with a single man in an open carriage.  The fact that it was inappropriate was a bit of knowledge that Catherine could have used ahead of time, and it would have helped her avoid dissing the Tilneys.  Mrs. Allen is the same character as Lady Bertram, Mrs. Dashwood, and even Mr. Woodhouse (both mother and father in Emma).  I’m interested to see if I find another such character in Pride and Prejudice and Persuasion.
  • One of the key ideas that I pulled from Northanger Abbey is that real life SNAFUS are just as important and affecting as the wild goings on in Gothic novels.  Catherine endures some real drama as she traverses the dangers of entering adulthood – the misunderstandings, hurt feelings, and disappointments in those we believe we know are all part of growing.  In Catherine’s case, they are all mild and temporary (even her abrupt departure from Northanger Abbey is remedied in the end), but to her, those incidents in real life overshadow anything she encounters in her Gothic fantasy world.   While the wild happenings in a novel hold value as entertainment, they cannot replace or diminish the incidents of everyday life that create or destroy the happiness of an ordinary individual.
  • Finally, what is the message Austen is sending us about the value of the novel?  Is she suggesting that novels are dangerous to our perceptions and ability to tolerate and manage real life as evidenced by Catherine’s struggles at Northanger Abbey?  Or, is it a statement that novels can give us a knowledge of our fellow human beings that goes beyond any understanding that real life can provide?  I think the answer is both… the novel provides opportunities to escape having to manage real life AND it provides us the opportunity to know and understand those in our own sphere by examining the fictional struggles of characters in a novel.

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