Jane Austen Society of North America, Southwest Region
200 Years of Persuasion
September 8, 2018
Pasadena Public Library
Donald Wright Auditorium
A capacity crowd of more than 130 people attended the Fall 2018 meeting of JASNA Southwest on Sept. 8 at the Pasadena Public Library for the topic “200 Years of Persuasion.”
Collins Hemingway spoke on “Persuasion and the Art and Science of Austen’s Fiction,” examining the novel through the lens of Austen’s original context. He posited that an author’s actual words and intention can get lost over the years, diluted with each new generation of published criticism. He suggested, for instance, Googling “Austen” and “abolitionist” to find competing views on her thoughts but little evidence that points back to her actual writing.
“Austen wrote about people and relationships,” he said. “Every relationship set in any time period is going to have a political context, but the question is whether that’s what the writer intended or whether it’s that she was writing about the real world and the political context is a part of that.”
Hemingway explained that he is working on a series of essays that aim to get back to the source. “I’m looking at what Austen actually wrote, really going back and looking at the words very carefully,” he said. “What did her characters think? What did they say? What did they do? Not what 200 years of criticism say about those words.”
He gave the example of Mrs. Smith, asking the audience what the novelist directly tells us about the character. He read passages on Mrs. Smith’s virtues and then noted: “But what does she actually do? She sells out her dear friend,” recommending Mr. Elliot because of the good Anne’s marriage to him might do for Mrs. Smith. But as soon as Anne reveals she could never marry Mr. Elliot, the truth comes out. “He is black at heart. Hollow and black.” Hemingway then asked: “How does this character, who the narrator describes as a good person end up not being a good person?”
Hemingway attributed the disparity to continuity drift, when the writer gets off track without realizing it until the rewrite process. He referred to Lady Russell’s treatment as another example of continuity drift in Persuasion, with the character playing a vital role early in the novel but disappearing for too long and never being fully resolved.
For his part, Hemingway said he considers Persuasion an unfinished novel. “Conventional wisdom says that Austen’s health deteriorated precipitously in early 1817,” he said. “But if you read what Henry Austen, her brother, said, “The symptoms of decay, deep and incurable, began to show themselves in early 1816,” when she was still working on the novel. Hemingway also noted that the collapse of Henry’s bank hurt many members of the Austen family, although the women were less affected. “Being a practical woman, Austen may have made a conscious decision to finish the novel as it stood so it could be sold to help the family,” he added.
Hemingway has spent the last 11 years researching the broad social, political, military and scientific history of the Regency era along with Austen’s own life and works. With degrees in English literature and a minor in science, he has had a career in which the two fields constantly intersect, such as co-authoring five nonfiction books on business and technology, including Business @ the Speed of Thought with Bill Gates.
In their talk, “A Room of Anne’s Own: Homelessness and Female Spaces in Persuasion,” JASNA Southwest board members Lynda Hall and Erika Kotite explored Anne’s journey as she moved through the various spaces in Persuasion, seeking the happy ending to her story. They structured the presentation as a dialogue between Hall, an Austen scholar and professor, and Kotite, an editor and writer with expertise in small structures and the contemporary “she shed” phenomenon.
“Anne Elliot is a woman who is without a permanent home during most of the story, and a woman who is clearly seeking space in which to thrive,” they noted. “She is moved from her ancestral mansion to her sister’s cottage, to rented rooms in Lyme Regis and then in Bath. We might presume that she will eventually find her home on board her husband’s ship.”
As Hall and Kotite explored the world of her last completed novel, they considered how Austen was writing it within the relatively cramped quarters of Chawton Cottage, how readers over the past two centuries have found the space to read and to imagine a life like Anne Elliot’s, and how contemporary women are still seeking a “room of one’s own.”
Hall is an associate professor of English at Chapman University. Her research is in 19th century British literature: Jane Austen, the English Gothic novel, and the interaction of terror, traumatic memory and literature. She is currently working on a chapter for the MLA teaching series about Persuasion, as well as a chapter for a book on Jane Austen and William Shakespeare. Kotite is a home and lifestyle expert and the author of She Sheds: A Room of Your Own and the newly released She Shed Style.
Kotite and Hemingway signed copies of their books for members following the meeting.