An illustration from an edition of Austen’s novels and letters published in 1906.

My Great Books colleague Paul Contino once gave a terrific assignment when teaching Kant’s Groundwork: write an essay in the form of a letter addressed to a political figure regarding a political and ethical issue in light of the categorical imperative. It took me several years after learning about this prompt from him, but at last I have offered my students a similar option for the last essay of Great Books III.

There are two options in this case. They could pen a letter coming from Anne Elliot in response to Wentworth’s letter in the penultimate chapter of Persuasion. Alternatively, they could write as Wentworth before he wrote that letter to Anne. He’d address this letter to a present-day therapist and analyze his feelings towards Anne since returning from the navy.

The first of these options is an imagined yet reasonable and logical idea: Wentworth has actually written Anne; now she is writing him. The second option, on the other hand, came from class discussion disguised as a session of family-community therapy.

Starting in the second half of Great Books II, I require students to take turn leading discussion for 30-45 minutes. For the majority of time, they lead discussion as it is normally done. Once in a while, however, there could be a different format. Refereeing a debate is an example. Having small-group performances is another one. Leading a family therapy session is a third one. And so on.

I’ve led or assigned a student to lead a therapy session on Mrs. Dalloway, The Brothers Karamazov, and Persuasion: all novels. The students leader would assign a character to each student and created a set of questions: some of which are geared to one, two, or three characters; others are geared towards the entire group. This semester, I was inspired by two student leaders who led the session in their respective sections and added two letter options to the prompt of the last essay.

One of my two sections of Great Books III this semester.

A few students chose these options, and below are the opening paragraphs of three letters. Each letter contains a lot of quotations and direct textual references. The opening paragraphs, however, rightly tend towards making larger points. Here is one.

Dear Dr. ______,

I would like to begin by thanking you for your guidance in our group session last week. Prior to our meeting, I will regretfully admit that I believed your services would be of no benefit to me. I believed in my specific company – sitting among the Elliotts struggling with vanity, Mr. Elliott and Ms. Clay laced in deceit and driven by greed, Ms. Smith left decrepit and impoverished – I was the last person in need of assistance. Then and now, my pride threatens to be my downfall, for I was humbled as you proved my outlook incorrect. As I listened to the discussion of marriage taking place between my sister and dear husband, I discovered a love like theirs requires hard work and vulnerability. As I listened to Captain Benwick and Louisa share their experience of falling in love, I grew jealous that their families were so supportive of their engagement. Ultimately, I’ve begun to realize there are unresolved emotions surrounding my history with Anne, for my former treatment of her still troubles me. I’m writing to you in the hope that you can help me become a better man so that I never lose my dear Anne again. Through this letter, I will discuss emotions of love and hurt I kept suppressed for too long, and I will confront my pride that having been wounded by Anne’s initial rejection, prevented me from returning to Anne sooner. Ultimately, when Anne rejected my engagement proposal, my pride was damaged that she would allow herself to be more persuaded by the voices of Lady Russell and her family, than she could be persuaded by my love for her. In processing the pains of that initial rejection, I will follow by also acknowledging my fears that the Elliott family will always view me with disdain, believing me too inferior to marry their daughter.

 For you to fully understand my struggle with pride, I feel it is only reasonable to start at the beginning of my relationship with Anne, prior to our reunion at Uppercross, at a time when I felt belittled and demeaned by the Elliott family…

“My struggle with pride” is emphasized because Wentworth himself admitted to Anne (near the end of, again, the penultimate chapter) that he was his worst enemy and he had been “proud, too proud” to ask her sooner.

A different letter makes a similar point.

Dear Dr. ______,

I must offer my sincerest apologies for the lack of communication on my part since I arrived at Uppercross. I have recently found myself in quite the series of events. My sister, Sophia, has rented a wonderful estate, Kellynch Hall, with her husband, Admiral Croft. Their decision has greatly impacted this season of my life, as they have rented the estate from the father of a woman I was engaged to some seven or eight years ago. This woman’s name is Anne Elliot. She, like myself, has astonishingly remained unmarried, even at the age of seven and twenty years old. When she called our engagement off years ago, I felt I must forget the memory of her as soon as possible. I believed she would find another, richer suitor hastily. I knew then that I could not bear to see her accept the love of another man, so I left for the sea. Eight years later, Anne finds her way back into my life. We both have made obvious attempts to avoid discussing the past—painful and foolish as it is. Yet somehow, the past insists on incessantly rearing its ugly head; now, I am at a crossroads where I must confront all that has happened between Anne and myself. I must confront the way I feel for her now and how our previously broken engagement affected me then and has continued to affect me. I harbor secret feelings of love for Anne Elliot that have quietly resided in the deepest crevices of my steadfast and constant heart since the year six. However, I also harbor feelings of distrust, deeply rooted pride, and hurt toward her. She has broken my heart in a way that no other woman has ever been granted the opportunity to. I am hauntingly cautious of heartbreak, and my worst fear is that Anne might refuse me twice. I am not sure my heart could survive such a travesty as that. Doctor, please, I beg for your expertise! Allow me to provide you with more context.

Upon my initial arrival, I had hoped to get to know the single women in the area and find a potential life-partner, some young woman to make a lovely wife of. The women I was surrounded with at the time were Sophia, Mary Musgrove, Louisa and Henrietta Musgrove (both single women), the Hayters (single sisters, as well), and Anne. Of course, I mingled some with the single ladies, as I intended to do, but I could not keep my mind’s attention from diverting toward Anne Elliot. I convinced myself I felt nothing towards her, and when I had reason to believe that wasn’t true, I convinced myself the only feelings I held for her were founded in disdain. I told myself Anne was a fickle, timid, and weak woman; I repeated to myself (and others) that she was not worth my time. She had grown plain during the same years I had grown richer and manlier. I remember telling my company that I was “quite ready to make a foolish match!”—that Anne was “so altered I should not know her again.” Oh! How I regret ever uttering these atrocities! I thank God that Anne was not present to hear me make such a prideful remark about her.

Turning to the other option, here is the beginning of a letter that a twentieth-century Anne Elliot could have written. It follows a different interpretative perspective, tracing her bloom after she left Kellynch-Hall.

My dearest Wentworth,

What a journey it has been since I first left Kellynch-Hall to go to Uppercross, and since I first reunited with you there to our feelings now. My love for you has always remained constant; and yet, I feel as if my life is world’s different from how it was only a few months ago. I believe I am much changed in my character. I always stayed true to my moral principles, to my sense of rightness and duty. However, I believe I have blossomed from a realm of restraint to one of internal confidence and strength. And I can see how you have changed too! Your feelings, which were hardened towards me when we first reunited, have softened. This growth, my dearest Wentworth, along with circumstances of chance, is what has brought us together. I believe my new-found strength is what empowered me to reach out to you while you have been here in Bath and, in covert ways, make my feelings known to you. Your softened heart has allowed you to accept these feelings of mine, and to profess feelings of your own. Our love, it seems, is a child of the circumstances which brought us together and the growth of our characters.

But when did this change begin? What experiences led to my growth? It all traces back to my leaving Kellynch-Hall. I never thought I would be thankful for my father’s squandering away the family’s fortunes. How surprising that his frivolity, which led to my going to Uppercross, is what led me back into your arms! I think one of the first important experiences which I had in Uppercross that led to my change was my interaction with the Musgroves, particularly the Musgrove sisters. In them, I saw what I called “good humoured mutual affection,” something I lack with my own sisters (1.5)…

Wentworth in the 1995 adaptation, starring Amanda Root and Ciarán Hinds.

Letter writing was very serious business in nineteenth-century England, exemplified by the popularity of letter writing manuals. (Click here for an overview by the Dutch scholar Ingrid Tieken-Boon van Ostade, who, however, doesn’t think that Austen was in a possession of one such manual.) It has of course faded considerably in the age of the Internet. If not already, this type of an assignment holds a certain challenge to future generations of students. All the more reason to consider offering it, don’t you think?