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|Claudia L. Johnson's "Unfeudal Tone" (long - sorry!)
Written by Line
(11/2/2005 12:42 a.m.)
Claudia Johnson has several interesting points to make in her essay "Persuasion: The 'Unfeudal Tone of the Present Day'", which can be found in the Norton Critical Edition. One of the things I like about CLJ's criticism is that she looks at JA's writing from an unapologetically feminist perspective. IMO it doesn't always work, but it's always interesting! This essay is on different topics, so I thought I'd just list the points that interested me together in their own post, and see what you all think.
The critcal tradition has designated Persuasion the "autumnal" novel, and this adjective brings with it a parcel of value-laden and often quite pedestrian assumptions about both the course of Austen's career and the course of literary history in general. Wistful and romantically unfulfilled in the twilight of her life, so the argument goes, the author grows tenderer on romantic subjects she had disparaged in the confidence and severity of her youth...The underlying assumption that Anne's autumn and Austen's are complementary - in other words, that Persuasion, like all novels written by women, is the author's own love story, composed with little or no aesthetic distance - is of course teeming with fallacies...Persuasion will not look so unequivocally like Austen's last and most mature word about love and the changing world before death stopped her lips if we recollect that Sanditon, which recapitulates the raucous energy and renews the literary debates characteristic of Austen's earliest work, followed so closely on its heels. Austen, unlike her latter-day readers, did not have the benefit of knowing that her impending death would be imparting a gently resigned, autumnal melancholy to all her observations. (p.286)
I find Johnson is being a little severe here. IMO, it's only natural for fans to look for evidence of the author's own life in his or her writing. On the other hand, she made me ask myself if I have a double standard, assuming that JA was more likely to be writing her own life just because she was a woman rather than a man.
Persuasion... distinctively minimizes problems which had before been so momentous to [JA's previous] heroines. By centering her novel on a maturer heroine, of course, Austen is free to explore female independence...The duty of filial piety, for example - Fanny Price's "great rule to apply to" - is nowhere dignified with the status of being at issue here. Even though her "word" has "no weight" within her family circle, Anne, like Emma, is an autonomous heroine...when we learn that she regards paying one's debts as an "indispensable duty", Anne distances herself from an impropriety that is specifically paternal...While Sir Walter pursues Lady Dalrymple, Anne visits a "nobody" - Mrs. Smith - without so much as informing him, let alone seeking his permission, and once his disapproval is expressed, it is ignored without fuss. For Anne, no hard conflict between duty and inclination is implied by defying or simply ignoring her father. Indeed, it is all too easy. (p.287-288)
The action of Persuasion begins eight years before the opening of the novel, when Wentworth angrily spurns young Anne Elliot because he believes she showed "feebleness of character" in relinquishing their engagement. Wentworth's anger deserves particular attention, because it is anything but customary to fault women for diffidence. In another kind of novel by another kind of novelist, Anne's initial hesitation would strike Wentworth and us alike as exemplary and he, like the enthusiastic Henry Crawford glorying in his chains, would, rather than take umbrage at her maidenly doubt, manfully seize an occasion to prove his worth. But Wentworth does not appear to believe that the inconvenient modesty of the maiden will be redeemed by the submission of the wife, or to value the "feebleness" so often held to be part of woman's duty as well as her charm...Maria Edgeworth* [recommended] that female children should be taught restraint, sweetness and submission because these, like it or not, [would] be expected from them throughout their lives as adults. "Timidity, a certain tardiness of decision, and reluctance to act in public situations, are not considered as defects in a woman's character" [according to Edgeworth]...Wentworth's contempt for what he perceives as Anne's failure to be decided, forward, and strong thus implicates and dissents from an already firmly established and widely available tradition of debate about women's manners. (p.291-292)
So, JA's ideal man (or one of them, anyway!) does not value the female submissiveness considered so attractive in her day...CLJ also discusses how stubborness is not considered a desirable quality in Persuasion either, but I won't go into that here.
Lady Russell stands not in the place of a mother, but rather "in the place of a parent". (p.296)
I found this very interesting. When you look at it, it's clear that JA said straight out that LR has not only had to replace Anne's mother, but her father as well.
So, what do you all think?
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