Hey, there, Jane Austen, you clever, well-informed person whom I imagine had a great deal of conversation! You’re the focus of two weeks worth of New Commons Project programming at my university, UMF. Specifically, your novel, Persuasion, has been chosen as the subject of our examination. UMF faculty, staff, and students + the Farmington community at large are reading or rereading your novel in light of its nomination as one of the texts important to think about today (in 2018). No mere relic of of 1818, we look to your Persuasion to learn more about how people interact with each other, how we value relationships, and how we can follow our hearts.
On November 28 I ventured to campus (remember, I’m on medical leave) to chat with my colleagues and the UMF community about this novel. I talked about the passage shown above, which illustrates Anne Elliot’s definition of good company. Actually, I read the entire scene where Anne and William Elliot talk about their cousins and what makes up good, even great, company. Here’s the passage, quoted from Project Gutenberg’s webpage:
They visited in Laura Place, they had the cards of Dowager Viscountess Dalrymple, and the Honourable Miss Carteret, to be arranged wherever they might be most visible: and “Our cousins in Laura Place,”–“Our cousin, Lady Dalrymple and Miss Carteret,” were talked of to everybody.
Anne was ashamed. Had Lady Dalrymple and her daughter even been very agreeable, she would still have been ashamed of the agitation they created, but they were nothing. There was no superiority of manner, accomplishment, or understanding. Lady Dalrymple had acquired the name of “a charming woman,” because she had a smile and a civil answer for everybody. Miss Carteret, with still less to say, was so plain and so awkward, that she would never have been tolerated in Camden Place but for her birth.
Lady Russell confessed she had expected something better; but yet “it was an acquaintance worth having;” and when Anne ventured to speak her opinion of them to Mr Elliot, he agreed to their being nothing in themselves, but still maintained that, as a family connexion, as good company, as those who would collect good company around them, they had their value. Anne smiled and said,
“My idea of good company, Mr Elliot, is the company of clever, well-informed people, who have a great deal of conversation; that is what I call good company.”
“You are mistaken,” said he gently, “that is not good company; that is the best. Good company requires only birth, education, and manners, and with regard to education is not very nice. Birth and good manners are essential; but a little learning is by no means a dangerous thing in good company; on the contrary, it will do very well. My cousin Anne shakes her head. She is not satisfied. She is fastidious. My dear cousin” (sitting down by her), “you have a better right to be fastidious than almost any other woman I know; but will it answer? Will it make you happy? Will it not be wiser to accept the society of those good ladies in Laura Place, and enjoy all the advantages of the connexion as far as possible? You may depend upon it, that they will move in the first set in Bath this winter, and as rank is rank, your being known to be related to them will have its use in fixing your family (our family let me say) in that degree of consideration which we must all wish for.”
I asked the audience to think about three things: 1) the concept of “good company,” 2) the distinction between birth/rank and quality of person, and 3) the idea of choice.
Because we are reading Austen’s novel with the notion of its contemporariness, in other words, our need to read it in 2018, I wanted the crowd to think about what we can take away from this passage and really any passage from Austen’s work. Why is it still relevant for us to read Austen today? Because she offers us universal advice on how to live. Her novels are about people as individuals, people as a part of families, and people as a part of society. Whether it’s 1818 or 2018, we must think about how we identify ourselves in relation to others. We must think about when we make our own decisions based on our own needs, or when we try to appease others and even sacrifice our own desires. Austen shows us that in Persuasion especially.
The next time you take a look at Persuasion think about how you may find yourselves in situations similar to Anne’s. Ponder how you relate to the people around you, their expectations, and your own sense of self.
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