Thursday, May 17, 2018
Persuasion by Jane Austen, James Kinsley (Editor), Deidre Shauna Lynch (Introduction) (Oxford University Press)
Persuasion: Jane Austen's kung fu novel?
For all the gentility, the characters in Austen’s last novel face real peril, and contend with dramatic reversals and bruising verbal blows
SA couple of weeks ago, I confidently predicted it would be easy enough to find new things to say about Jane Austen for this month’s reading group. But now I’ve read Persuasion I want to repeat everything everyone has been saying for the past 200 years. It’s superb. I loved it. It swept me up.
Harold Bloom once called Persuasion “the perfect novel”, and generations before and since have agreed. In the first biography of Jane, her nephew James Edward Austen-Leigh quoted his brother-in-law Sir Denis le Marchant telling him:
When I was a student at Trinity College, Cambridge, Mr Whewell, then a fellow and afterwards master of the college, often spoke to me with admiration of Miss Austen’s novels. On one occasion I said that I had found Persuasion rather dull. He quite fired up in defence of it, insisting that it was the most beautiful of her works.
I understand Mr Whewell’s fire. I can also sympathise with the famous (if possibly apocryphal) story of Lord Tennyson interrupting his friends on a visit to Lyme Regis when they started talking about the 1685 rebellion and demanding: “Don’t talk to me of the Duke of Monmouth, show me the exact spot where Louisa Musgrove fell.” It’s exactly what I’ll be trying to picture next time I visit Lyme Regis.
In fact, I feel like I have already seen it all. Jane Austen doesn’t go in for florid description, but there’s something about her prose that puts you right in the scene. In The March of Literature (1938), Ford Madox Ford wrote: “Society was rendered by Jane Austen with a vividness that made the reader feel that he was actually sitting in an armchair in Mansfield Park … That is it. You sit about in morning rooms with the characters.”
I agree with Ford, but it’s also at this point that I wince. I imagine myself clumping into that morning room, dressed as I am while writing this: cargo shorts and a tattered old band T-shirt. I wonder what on earth I would talk about (assuming everyone hadn’t already fled in horror). As intimate as Jane Austen’s world is, it remains very far away.
Faced with such distance, the temptation is to try to reel Jane back in to our own time. (Google “Jane Austen feminist” and you’ll see what I mean.) I highly recommend listening to this lecture given by Professor Timothy Morton at UC Davis, who rather enjoyably says: “I always think the way to read Jane Austen is the way to read a kung fu film.”
Yes, my first instinct was to dismiss Morton. After all, wasn’t the whole joke of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies that you couldn’t get further away from heavy-footed brain-eaters than Austen’s bone-china world? What could be more absurd than high-kicking ass-whupping Bennets?
But as Ford also says, Austen’s apparent “delicacy is strength itself”. Morton’s theory might sound silly – but I find it hard to argue with its substance. Here’s what he says:
In a kung fu film, there’s always the threat of unspeakable violence … there’s a sort of weird tension … and every so often it gets resolved with a fight. In the same way in Jane Austen there’s this unspeakable tension. And it’s not resolved with fighting, it’s resolved with speech. With proposals of marriage and with money changing hands – but still there’s this threat of violence. The violence being expulsion from the gentry. At any moment, you can find that your ass is out. And you’re out of luck. Any moment. It applies to everyone, but in particular women.
Few books have made me feel more tense than Persuasion. I could feel my stomach knotting as I read, not just at the frisson between Anne Elliot and Frederick Wentworth, but the precariousness of their society. All the concerns in the novel – over position, appearance, doing and saying the right thing – are a constant balancing act, on a tightrope with a long fall.
Anne’s life is horribly hemmed in. What does she have to look forward to if she doesn’t marry? Life as a dependent of Lady Russell is the miserable alternative for her. Anne’s friend Mrs Smith, living in penury, ill and all but trapped in her home shows what a few small strokes of bad fortune can bring to people in this world. And when the Musgroves’ child falls from a horse – and Louisa Musgrove from the Cobb – the panic is made all the greater by the horror of the sick room. No one dies in Austen novels, but in Persuasion the threat is always there. Morton’s kung fu analogy works: there is constant, physical danger here.
And of course, there are verbal beatings, like the last, brutal words we hear about Elizabeth Elliot: “It would be as well for the eldest sister if she were equally satisfied with her situation, for a change is not very probable there. She had soon the mortification of seeing Mr Elliot withdraw; and no one of proper condition has since presented himself to raise even the unfounded hopes which sunk with him.” Ouch!
So yes, it’s all a hilarious social comedy, and yes, it has a gloriously happy ending. But for all the elegance, manners and fussing over calling cards, Persuasion is almost terrifying.