Sometimes in my early thirties, I realized that my greatest heroines in English fiction are, in chronological order of their creation, Anne Elliot, Dorothea Brooke, and Margaret Schlegel. It took me a few more years to realize that it was probably not a coincidence that these characters are my favorites because two of their creators were women and the third was a gay man. I know, I am a slow learner.
Anne Elliot is the last of the three that I encountered when reading Persuasion in my late twenties. Margaret Schlegel might have been more cosmopolitan, and Dorothea Brooke perhaps possesses greater depth. But Anne is just as terrific. As Harold Bloom puts it, Anne has a sort of “Shakespearean inwardness”: no small significance. She is also the most uncompromising when it comes to love and marriage and, therefore, the most romantic of this trio.
Dorothea and Margaret, after all, end up marrying men clearly below their moral station and refined sensibility. Their husbands are not bad men by any means. All right, Dorothea’s first husband is an intellectual louse and a control freak. But Will Ladislaw and Henry Wilcox, who, by the way, are two very different types of men, have some shining qualities alongside their shortcomings. Still, few readers will place them on the same level as their wives. Unlike Margaret, Henry Wilcox is too practical. Will Ladislaw, on the other hand, is too much of a dilettante in comparison to the passionate yet grounded Dorothea.
But back to Anne: she desires for perfect compatibility or “matching of minds”; she evaluated the pairing of others according to this very standard; and it is unlikely that she would compromise with this ideal. Were it not for the fact that Austen’s stories have to end with marriage (otherwise it wouldn’t have been Austen), it is entirely conceivable that Anne would rather remain single than marry someone other than Wentworth.
In any event, it was my great delight to have read and discussed Austen’s last novel with my students this semester. I’d initially planned for Emma because I wished to honor the 200th anniversary of its publication. (It came out around Christmas 1815.) The Great Books faculty, however, collectively decided on Persuasion, which I considered when teaching this class the first time three years ago. In any event, it was an excellent call: not in the least because Persuasion is only half the length of Emma, leaving room for the addition of Voltaire’s Candide to the reading list. It also turns out that that most students loved it.
One should not, of course, base selections for a reading list on the possibility or reality of love that students may bestow upon a book or a character. In the case of Austen, however, professors have the benefit from popular culture, which has continued to, well, popularize her fiction on film and television in the last several decades: yes, even Austen’s last novel, which appears to be less “exciting” than Emma or Pride and Prejudice.
All the same, Austen has a buzz for a classic writer that perhaps only Shakespeare could match these days. Therefore, I deliberately suppressed my enthusiasm for Anne Elliot and Persuasion in the classroom. In addition, we were somewhat weary because Pepperdine doesn’t have a fall break and the book was scheduled for the two weeks prior to Thanksgiving. Yet it didn’t seem to matter as much this time, as students were quite into it. Which I attributed to the prowess of Persuasion.
My students put their writings into a portfolio at the end of the semester, and also wrote a preface. Below are some of the thoughts about Anne Elliot and Persuasion from those prefaces. Quarrel with a perspective or a particular point if you must. Her popularity notwithstanding, Jane Austen isn’t for everyone; and there was at least one student from each section that had a defensible reason not to like the book.
But I think that the thoughts and opinions below, coming from students of different genders and from different racial and/or economic backgrounds, help to demonstrate the real and potential significance of Austen and, especially, Persuasion to millennials in college today and in the near future.
(I should add that the students wrote about a lot about other books too. There were many thoughts on or appreciations for Tartuffe, Paradise Lost, A Treatise on Inequality, and, surprise to me, Candide, which earned more praise than any after Persuasion. On the other hand, The Grounding of the Metaphysics of Morals…)
Except for the last one, I arrange the excerpts from the shortest to the longest.
From Jane Austen’s Persuasion, I will attempt to exemplify Anne’s patience and observance, taking every opportunity to embrace the mistakes of my past while looking to the future with a sense of hope and potential.
The book I was most looking forward to, Jane Austen’s Persuasion, did not disappoint. It quickly became my new all-time favorite book (replacing Pride and Prejudice) when I realized just how similar I perceive Anne and myself to be.
In my first essay, I wrote about Anne and Captain Wentworth’s compatibility, and why it is superior to the other couples in the novel. This was by far my favorite essay to write, because of Jane Austen’s ability to ascribe so much depth and meaning into the simplest exchange between her characters.
And little by little, I see myself coming out of my shell. I find myself chewing over the kinds of ideas each author would want their readers to think about or feel inspired by. I experience the nerve-racking anxiety and restless uncertainty in Anne’s shoes when I read Persuasion and find it strikingly parallel to my own.
Among the books, I expected that Jane Austen’s Persuasion would be my least favorite. Instead, my inner romantic awoke, and I now understand why there are so many films centered on her books; their classic comedies with romance and drama; everything a modern audience adores beside violence, which is something I’d rather not see or read about.
My favorite book this semester is Persuasion. It was a tough choice between Candide and Persuasion, but I loved Austen’s narrative writing style, and who doesn’t love a good love story? Candide was great in its own way, the story was interesting though rushed and I often had to slow myself down while reading and go back a page or two to reread what just happened. Candide kept me entertained, but not to the extent of Persuasion.
Tartuffe and Persuasion remain my favorite works from this semester. I love Elmire and Anne as characters. In Anne’s case, I especially appreciate the existence of an introverted female lead who remains an introvert up through her happy ending. I undoubtedly have some personal bias, but I think it’s more common to have an introverted lead realize that what they really need to be happy is to get a personality transplant from the stereotype of a cheerleader.
As a creative writing major, I was very interested in reading narratives such as Tartuffe and Persuasion. In reading these books, I was able to observe how great authors from the past crafted their stories, which gave me ideas and reference points for when I work on my own books. I particularly enjoyed Persuasion. Austen was a master of crafting the relationships between characters and moving the plot forward based on those relationships more than on external events; something I definitely could stand to work on in my own stories.
Persuasion, which focused societal relationships and human emotions, is by far my favorite book throughout all the books in the Great Books series. I was surprised when I saw this reading on the list of books for our class because it is so romantic. This text was so enjoyable to read; it was like an actual movie in my head. Jane Austen writes in such a way that my soul aches for the characters within the text. I could tell she was a feminist writer by the way she wrote about her female characters. She also exhibited the way women were portrayed during the 19th century in England, which was of more equality.
In my opinion, the most impactful example of the power of relationships in influencing an individual was seen in Jane Austen’s Persuasion. While I may have been significantly biased in this assessment, as I have always been partial to Austen novels, I truly believe that the storyline was the most relatable, and therefore had the greatest capacity for practical application by its readers. As was expected based upon my previous experience with Austen, I most enjoyed the discussions relating to Persuasion, I found the complexities of Anne’s actions to be intriguing, and incredibly fun to attempt to understand.
As for the readings themselves, one of my favorites from the semester was Jane Austen’s Persuasion. Though it was a bit predictable, the story itself was very engrossing and kept me intrigued to find out exactly what and how the story would unfold. I found the characters in Persuasion to be very complex characters as well. Anne was very well-rounded, and her struggle between familial duty and her own love and happiness was apparent until the very end… I also loved the contrasts of relationships in Persuasion, as most couples were not happy together, but together for money or circumstance.
Two or three students above note a personal identification with the main character, and this student has more to say about it:
My favorite piece was Persuasion. In fact, I have been a long time fan of Jane Austen films, yet I had never read one of her novels. I found the relationships and dynamics of her characters to be incredibly relatable. In addition, if I were to choose a literary figure that best resembled myself I would be greatly inclined to select Anne Elliot. Her actions and demeanor are somewhat of a mirror image of myself. As I was reading I found myself constantly getting irritated with Anne’s inactivity and overthinking. Once we began discussing the novel I realized as I was listening to everyone share his or her insights that Anne Elliot and I are very similar… I believe that ten years from now I will still find the character of Anne Elliot and her circumstances to be impactful. I too have experienced a loss of someone significant in my life and I now recognize it has shaped my behavior and made me a guarded person. Austen’s writing has numerous moments that I am struck by because they are so similar to my own past circumstances. In the past Great Books courses, I never experienced such a personal connection with a character as I have with Anne Elliot… Upon this realization, I am greatly inspired to read all of the works of Austen on my own time.
Most prefaces place Anne Elliot in the larger context of the course; here is one example:
With each book we have studied and analyzed this semester, I have found at least one aspect to empathize with, or something that is very much applicable to my own journey. I have experienced someone that doubted me, blind to the truth I was showing her, unable to see what was right in front her. In this instance, I looked for insight from Elmire and adopted her use of cleverness and intelligence of human nature to bring my friend out from the burden of blindness. I have seen the violent inequality that has plagued my nation for all of its history resurface in extreme platforms; I have seen the exploitation of man splashed across the news and have experienced it first hand. Driving alongside the devastating scene at Skid Row, I have seen true poverty with people sleeping on concrete sidewalks and alleyways, people that are at the bottom of the hierarchy of humanity. For this, I searched through Rousseau for answers, for the causation of such a horrible reality, and for the hope of equality that could possibly fill the country some day. I have experienced a growth in confidence; one that has made me into a woman that speaks her mind rather than a girl trapped inside of it. Anne Elliot has taught me that change can be beneficial, if not absolutely vital for happiness.
Last but not least is the following comment from a student who had never read anything by Jane Austen before this class, or even seen any movie or TV adaptations:
I have no doubt that I will always remember my first Jane Austen experience [and I am] so looking forward to Christmas [at home] with my Jane Austen novels, hot tea, and a warm fire.