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I blame Beth and Doug. It’s all their fault, I swear it. I started checking out Beth’s blog on Mondays after finding my way there because of the post about Persuasion that turned into a discussion of Pride & Prejudice. And Doug, well, he mentioned Madame Bovary’s Ovaries, which purports to be a literary critique from an evolutionary biology perspective. It’s not, really, as I wrote in my review. But the book did set me off on my way to reading some of the work of lit-crit guru (apparently) Harold Bloom. My local library had 25+ volumes of literary criticism that he’s edited, and being a Persuasion fan, I picked that volume to read, as well as the volume on Garcia Marquez’ One Hundred Years of Solitude. I’ve just finished the Persuasion edition, which was interesting but also gave me a headache. Yes, JA is a master (mistress?) of words and images, but did she really intend all of the stuff that literary critics see and write about in her books? Some of it, yes, I can see that, but all of it? I’m not so sure.
Tangent: Sometimes I wonder if all lit-crit isn’t kind of like a writing class I once took. One assignment was to write about a barn, but use the barn as an image, not the main theme. Okay. So I wrote about a ramshackle barn as a metaphor for a crumbling marriage, and my question was whether or not it was fixable, building or marriage. Not being a farmer, I had a limited number of farming tools in my vocabulary: tractor, roto-tiller, hay-bailer, rake, hoe, etc. Every damn person who read the piece thought my mention of a hoe meant that the marriage was falling apart because someone cheated. [Eddie Murphy has a lot to answer for, the meaning and use of that word is changed for ever and it’s all his fault.] No, when I was writing, I was thinking that the problem was age and indifference and neglect (hence, the falling down barn; I’m a pretty obvious person when it comes to imagery, what can I say?). The instructor’s position was that it didn’t matter what I consciously intended for readers to get from the words I used, all that mattered was what readers got, and since that’s what they read, then I must have subconsciously selected words to create that effect. No, really, I just couldn’t think of any more farming tools and didn’t have time to do research, since I procrastinated til the night before the assignment was due. So I wonder if we as readers are doing the same thing to Jane Austen’s work. Not that my lame barn story was that good, but really, if it happens to sucky writers like me, it could probably happen to amazing ones, couldn’t it?
Anyway, some of the critical essays seemed to be, well, reaching, to me. Like they were written by an academic who had forgotten how to just enjoy the written word on the page, or how to read a book or watch a movie without always looking for subtext. But a couple of them were really good and made me think, including one that wrote about Anne Elliot as a listener. The author (I forget what his name was, Stuart Tavo, maybe?), wrote about how JA changed the ending of Persuasion, because she needed to show the metamorphosis of Wentworth. Anne was always the listener; to have her overhearing a conversation, as the original ending went, would be nothing new. Wentworth, though, had consciously refused to “hear” Anne when they met again because of wounded pride, stupidity, etc. Being overheard would not demonstrate the change in his thinking re: Anne, but having him strain to listen to Anne speak to Harville about female steadfastness, and then write that he can listen no longer in silence was a big, big deal. Hence, the second version of the ending, which is the ending that readers know and love.
That same essay mentioned perspective briefly, and wondered about the use of Anne as narrator. Because really, a more normal (for that time) perspective would have been that of Wentworth. It would likely have made the book more of a light comedy, rather than the melancholic book that Persuasion is, despite the HEA. Ever since then, I’ve been trying to imagine the tale told from Wentworth’s perspective. If I ever manage to get my head around it, I’ll post a synopsis and maybe a blurb here. But can you imagine it? Do you think you’d like that version as much as Anne’s? However much I like Wentworth because of his letter, Anne, sympathetic Anne, is the draw to Persuasion for me.
Another essay was about fiction as a biography, listing all of the similarities in Anne’s life to Jane Austen’s life. Okay, whatever. A third essay, which was one that I enjoyed a great deal, talked about community, which was actually pretty interesting. Unlike the other books Austen wrote, Persuasion does not end with a happy new couple being established within the existing community. Instead, Anne and Wentworth create their own new community that is unlike any other in JA’s works. It’s a landless community. The author’s point is that land and community (read: the estate of the main characters) in JA’s books was used as the stimulus for familial and cultural continuity. Without them, that stability is eroded, leading to change in social structure and the class system. This kind of touches on another essay I read once in the Norton edition which also wrote about Wentworth as a New Man. While I tend to think of JA as a member of a gentry class, unchanging, she was writing about the change of society in a small, incremental way in Persuasion.
What’s my point? What am I bitching about? Well, mostly that these essays, however thought-provoking or headache-inducing they may be, seem to forget an important point: it’s a ROMANCE, stupid! Yeah, it’s got other stuff going on because JA was a smart writer who included social commentary and criticism in her work, along with layers of all kinds of stuff, but really, for a lot of readers Persuasion is about the Happily Ever After. Anne and Wentworth are reunited after an eight year absence, each recognizing the sterling qualities in each other and appreciating them. Do readers really care about the creation of a new community? Uh, I don’t think so. Do they ever think that a more traditional comedic narrator would’ve been Wentworth? I doubt it. It’s his letter to Anne that melts us.