Lucy and Todd

Persuasion — Jane Austen

In Stuff We Like, The Gloves Are Off : Thoughts on Literature on October 3, 2014 at 3:10 pm

It is surely the most convincing love story Austen ever wrote, and it’s about a young love, eager, passionate and joyful, which is thwarted by adult ignorance, ill faith and snobbery. Anne loves Wentworth, and Wentworth loves Anne. So it makes pretty good sense that, when the novel opens, eight years later, he has been smarting from Anne’s reluctant rejection of him, and hurt pride has so far stopped him from proposing again. Anne has meanwhile suffered helplessly in silence, alone, ignored, disrespected – seemingly a dutiful maiden aunt but inwardly a dubious one, full of disgust for the society and the individuals that urged her to relinquish him. This is an autumnal novel, full of melancholy. Anne and Wentworth have contemplated this disaster for years, and are stuck in grief and anger.

This situation has been harder for Anne to bear, since she’s had little to distract her from the ruination of her hopes, her looks, her love life, and her prospects. She has remained in the very spot where their love affair was forcibly dismantled, and lives with the same unsympathetic people and, wistfully, amid the same (beloved) scenery. She has naturally spent a lot of her time reading poetry and naval reports (in search of news of Captain Wentworth on his various frigates). But she bears another significant wound too: her mother died when Anne was thirteen. So Anne is really alone in the world, lost, frozen, lovestruck – and inadequately loved or protected by the people around her. The deterioration in her looks is a dangerous development for a young privileged woman in the early 1800s: it seems to doom her to spinsterhood and playing the piano while others dance. Even Wentworth, on his return, dances to music Anne provides. Her lowly position in the family circle, and her initial suffering on Wentworth’s return, are exquisitely painful: ‘His cold politeness, his ceremonious grace, were worse than anything.’

On a walk with the lively group of cousins, Wentworth’s new groupies, Anne recites poetry to herself, but after overhearing Wentworth flirting with Louisa, loses even that comfort: ‘Anne could not immediately fall into a quotation again. The sweet scenes of autumn were for a while put by–unless some tender sonnet, fraught with the apt analogy of the declining year, with declining happiness, and the images of youth and hope, and spring, all gone together, blessed her memory. She roused herself to say…“Is not this one of the ways to Winthrop?” But nobody heard, or at least, nobody answered her.’ A low point – and incidentally, she was right about its being the way to Winthrop!

This is what it feels like not to be heard. She can’t or doesn’t bother to participate in most conversations, apart from offering a thoroughly sensible remark or two now and then. She’s never given a chance to speak. Her sister Mary is always yammering on, but everyone else too talks over Anne. No one listens to her at Kellynch Hall either, her supposed ‘home’, an insult that bugs Lady Russell on Anne’s behalf: Lady Russell recognizes that Anne is the most sensible person in the family. She may even have some regrets about blighting Anne’s life by encouraging her to reject Wentworth all those years ago. But Lady Russell is often out of the picture, so Anne doesn’t get to speak to her either.

What keeps happening is that in her powerless position – metaphysically gagged and bound – Anne overhears things. In reaction to all the indifference around her, she becomes more ears than mouth. Much of the novel turns on hearsay, second and third-hand gossip, and eavesdropping (Anne even reads someone else’s mail at one point, though she at first objects to the necessity of doing so). This is the story of a woman so alone it’s an achievement that she continues to exist at all. She lives in a society equally fragile, held together by strands of gossip and misrepresentation. Hearsay and gossip are powerful, if flawed, means of coercion, or ‘persuasion’. It’s also how the powerless communicate (look at Twitter). And the most hurtful, ill-judged remarks are the most quickly (and callously) shared. For instance, Mary blithely relays to Anne Wentworth’s shocked reaction to the change in her appearance: “…he said, ‘You were so altered he should not have known you again.’”

The harmfulness of ‘persuasion’ is at the heart of the book. Anne’s advisor and mother-substitute Lady Russell was WRONG WRONG WRONG. Yet, eight years on, Anne ‘did not blame Lady Russell, she did not blame herself for having been guided by her; but she felt that were any young person, in similar circumstances, to apply to her for counsel, they would never receive any of such certain immediate wretchedness, such uncertain future good.’ What the book most lacks is a gratifying confrontation between the two of them on the subject: Anne should really get to tell Lady Russell a thing or two. But by the end, thanks to the intrusive subplot, she has too much to tell Lady Russell (about Mr Elliot’s deceitfulness, as well as her newly independent attitude towards Wentworth), and evades meeting her at all! This is a bit of a cop-out. As a result, the ending’s too peaceful, and too pat.

Like Anne, Persuasion itself suffers from muteness. The wit here is abashed and awkward. What happened? Austen’s eye’s not always on the ball. A few memorable caricatures emerge (too few). The charmless father, Sir Walter, is nicely reprehensible, complaining at every opportunity about how ugly everybody is, especially anyone who’s been at sea (an apt analogy for Anne herself, who has been ‘at sea’ – in her own head – for eight years). He’s like someone lacking in zinc, for whom everything smells like shit. In response to the news that his tenant is an Admiral, he exclaims with customary revulsion: “Then I take it for granted…that his face is as orange as the cuffs and capes of my livery.” His older daughter Elizabeth is just as cold, but characterless; Austen never does much with her. The truly obnoxious Sir Walter at least earns his keep. Some sprightly fun is poked at him again in Bath, when he notices that the Dowager Viscountess Dalrymple has arrived: ‘…for the Dalrymples were cousins of the Elliots; and the agony was, how to introduce themselves properly.’ That ‘agony’ is genius.

It’s funny too that ‘…the Musgroves had had the ill fortune of a very troublesome, hopeless son; and the good fortune to lose him before he reached his twentieth year.’ But the joke is over-played in succeeding pages, releasing a brutality Austen usually saved for letters. She’s needlessly cruel too about Mrs. Musgrove’s plumpness, suggesting that it’s ridiculous to grieve over anything if you’re fat: you’re supposed to be jolly. She could surely have had more fun with Bath instead (a place Austen often energetically scorned). Anne merely dreads going, but has to go, and (suddenly) goes. And there, Cinderella-like, she changes character, becomes more able, more beautiful, more esteemed and less ignored, and more of a free agent too, finally being rewarded by an ecstatic resumption of love. Anne talks more in Bath than she has in the rest of the novel. The chance for Austen to knock the place is completely lost.

Even allowing for the lack of genuine satire, Persuasion is flawed. A very poignant story is marred by almost gothic convolutions of plot that heave themselves unnaturally into being in the last third of the book: all that stuff about the sinister Mr Elliot’s sneaky plans, awkwardly conveyed to us (through hearsay) by the never fully realised semi-invalid, Mrs. Smith. Unusually for Austen, this clumsy subplot verges on the tedious. What she had up until then was a nice tight little novel about loneliness, ostracism, enforced female immobility, and despair. She loses that intensity in favour of a Herculean (and unnecessary) struggle to sort out the good from the bad. But what’s it to US if Mr. Elliot’s a jerk?

Though much interrupted by all this Mrs. Smith malarkey, the delights of Anne’s contact with Wentworth in Bath are well done, those tentative thrilling moves towards reunion and happiness. Anne’s excitement at the concert is almost hysterical; she’s throbbing with hopes and fears. The climax of the Wentworth/Anne romance though, comes, oddly enough, with a conversation between Anne and Captain Harville (with Wentworth eavesdropping in the background). Harville movingly complains that Captain Benwick, in proposing to Louisa, has recovered surprisingly fast from the death of his previous fiancee, Harville’s sister Fanny: “Poor Fanny! she should not have forgotten him so soon!… It was not in her nature. She doated on him.” “It would not be the nature of any woman who truly loved,” replies Anne.

Then in a great little discussion along feminist lines, Harville comments mildly, “… I do not think I ever opened a book in my life which had not something to say upon woman’s inconstancy. Songs and proverbs, all talk of woman’s fickleness. But perhaps you will say, these were all written by men.” “…Yes, yes, if you please, no reference to examples in books. Men have had every advantage of us in telling their own story. … I will not allow books to prove anything.” (Excellent irony, since the world by then contained Austen’s own novels.) The whole Louisa-Lyme Regis-Benwick-Fanny subplot then finally comes together in the once abject, now vibrant, Anne’s best line: “All the privilege I claim for my own sex (it is not a very enviable one, you need not covet it) is that of loving longest, when existence or when hope is gone.”

The unevenness of this novel is in some ways part of its charm. There is an artlessness and honesty here that hint at real pain, and perhaps at something too personal to be easily fictionalised. All the great Austen ingredients are there: she’s got her moral premise up and running (that young love should be allowed to flourish, and life is not only about money); she has a central female character who, though at first silent, meek and almost amorphous, becomes solidified by her own unhappiness and finds her voice; she has hypochondriacs, hypocrisies, absurdities (though not enough of them). That she didn’t manage to sculpt all this into quite the masterpiece Pride and Prejudice is (from the git-go, P & P means business), hints that much of the raw emotion here stayed raw – for Austen too – and became curiously (and intriguingly) intractable.



In Our Students Vouch for Us on May 30, 2014 at 11:40 am

LEILA ABOULELA (author of Lyrics Alley, the Fiction Winner of the Scottish Book Awards, and other novels, radio plays, and short stories – most recently, Aboulela’s “The Insider” was broadcast on Radio 3, November 2, 2013) [from published interviews]: “Thanks to…..Todd McEwen, my writing tutor, whose belief in my work made me take myself seriously as a writer” –  Mslexia  “Thanks to McEwen, Aboulela found an agent and in 1999, her first novel, The Translator was published by Scottish independent, Polygon.” The Big Interview  –  New Books Magazine


NANCY GAFFIELD (author of Tokaido Road, CB Editions – winner of 2011 Aldeburgh First Collection Prize for poetry; Owhere, Templar, 2012; and Continental Drift is due out in April, 2014, Shearsman):  Todd and Lucy are that rare breed of professional writers who are outstanding at teaching. I highly recommend them to anyone who is serious about writing. Not only will you be given in-depth and critical feedback, you will also get practical help in learning how to get your working published.  Todd has been instrumental in my launch as a poet.


NEIL BUTLER (author of The Roost, Thirsty Books, Edinburgh, 2011):  Lucy and Todd will NURTURE your book – they won’t tell you what you should write or how THEY would write it.  They’ll help you make YOUR book the best it can be.  Which is a long way of saying they’re the real thing.  They’re not the friend who’ll tell you they don’t like your subject-matter or that they don’t get what you’re trying; they’re not your mum who’ll tell you you’re just brilliant: WHERE did you get that IMAGINATION from?  These are people who know how to write, they know what writing IS – so they know how you edit.  Todd edited my book and left me a book I’m proud of.  His cuts were fine plastic surgery, not butchery; his advice was practical (i.e., not ‘this is how I WOULD write it’ but ‘here’s a way to improve this’); he spotted the glaring errors that make it into every piece of writing that passes 140 characters.  Lucy gave me my cover quote – ‘It’s wonderful’ – (and meant it!).  One last thing.  They do a very good seminar, the only seminars I ever came out of feeling excited, inspired and not in need of a stiff drink.  So, tip: bring a pad and paper and scribble down the books casually mentioned, quiet-like, under your desk.  Trust me.


AARON SIMON:  Todd and Lucy were amazing mentors at Kent. With their prodding and encouragement, I was actually able to finish writing a novel and–even more amazingly–start legitimately rewriting huge swaths of text.


JAMES WRIGHT:  Todd and Lucy, as writers, readers and editors, helped me to trust and develop my ideas of fiction and have inspired the confidence to do my ideas justice and successfully write exactly as I aspire to. Their editorial support is artistically sensitive and, with the reader in mind, logically sound, so as not to lose sight of the essential narrative.


EMMA GLASS:  I would like to say that it is always such a pleasure to receive feedback from you. The response is always prompt, always honest. Even when I send long, intangible lines of random words with minimal punctuation, you always help me to find a focus. You read with such patience; guiding my rough chapters and shaping them, helping me to see through the creative fuzz. Observations always objective, practical considerations about the reader, about the narrative voice. But always, and most essentially enthusiastic and encouraging.


CHRIS BENNETT:  Truly wonderful! Fiction Atelier has not only polished my work but their feedback and guidance has improved my writing immensely. It’s a personal service that is tailored to each individual and Todd and Lucy are always available to help – just a phone call or an email away. I couldn’t have completed my novel without them.


NIK WILLIAMS (writer for Index on Censorship):  Never erosive nor evasive, their editorial help offered constructive directions out of a manuscript tangled up by syntactical choices, pockmarked by plot holes and crowded by superfluous characters. I would recommend their services to any writer without hesitation.


KYLIE GRANT (Winner of the Unbound Press/Spilling Ink Review Holiday Flash Fiction Prize 2012 and author of The House that We Built – shortlisted for the Lucy Cavendish Fiction Prize 2011; winner of Wise Words Fiction Prize, 2014; reviewer for The List, Scotland):  Todd McEwen and Lucy Ellmann were utterly wonderful teachers, editors, and mentors during my time at the University of Kent.  One of their many strengths is that they actively want to engage with your writing, both as writers and as teachers, giving you the freedom to experiment and create your own confident writing voice.  In encouraging you to read and question a variety of thought provoking, frustrating, beautiful and ultimately inspiring pieces of writing they improve the quality, depth and structure of your own writing. I honestly couldn’t have finished my novel without their enthusiasm, guidance and feedback.


RUPERT SMITH (Winner of the Bloomsbury Writing Prize and the T. S. Eliot Prize at the University of Kent; his short story, ‘Fripperies’, was broadcast on Radio 4 in October, 2011):  Lucy and Todd were meat and drink to me whilst at Kent. I never dreamed that my writing would be invigorated in the way it was – suddenly I was urged out of my comfort zone, but at the same time I was never happier in taking the risks I took on the page to the extent that I almost forgot I was on a degree course. What was so revelatory was how the reading fed so appropriately into the creative process; works I’d never before come across (by writers I’m still exploring) were shoring up all the experiments I doubt I would ever have otherwise undertaken, and validating them.
Lucy encourages her students to think deeply about their craft, and I’m delighted to say that the generous feedback I received during her module ‘The Body’ was instrumental in helping me to strike out and complete what was to become my Radio 4 short story debut.
And Todd is just so supportive and wise: who can resist a tutor who asks, à propos of nothing, ‘What’s exciting you?’?  His tutorials are mini literary adventures: invaluable assistance with envisioning the writer’s journey alongside an uncanny bibliophile’s sixth sense in steering you towards your next feeding frenzy. I never shifted to the uni library so fast.


EDDIE GIBBONS (latest poetry collection: A Twist of Lime Street; What They Say About You was shortlisted for the Scottish Book Awards, Poetry Section):  If Todd and Lucy were mechanics, they’d work for Rolls-Royce or Ferrari. They are fiction engineers. Todd McEwen set me on the path to five published collections of poetry by instilling in me a belief that I could become good enough by building on my raw ability through application, study, editing and enjoyment of all these processes. But he didn’t stop there. Once he thought that my work was of a sufficient level he encouraged me to send it out into the world, where some of it got published in literary magazines. Not only that – he actually brought the editor of one of those magazines to meet me, whereupon he offered to publish my first collection. But it doesn’t end there. Todd and Lucy have inducted me into the wider world of authorship by introducing me to many luminaries of the writing profession, including Billy Collins, former poet laureate of America. Their tutorship and continuing friendship are things I treasure.


KRISTEN LOWMAN:  You won’t find anyone better than Lucy and Todd.  I can say this; I’ve attended some fine workshops, but I have never received such detailed, precise, thoughtful notes; some dealing with the story’s subtlety, some addressing the technical, all of them honoring and enhancing the story.  They also have a unique way of making me reach higher, without fear – it comes from their generous natures as artists, as professional writers.  After working with them, I find myself enthused, excited to get back at the story.  They pass on their joy, igniting my own.  Thank you.


EFFIE CURRELL (author of short story collections published by the Kreol Institute in the Seychelles, and a children’s book published by Macmillan Caribbean):  So many things keep pulling me away from writing, and sometimes it would be easy to abandon a story that no-one will miss if it’s not told. So, as I sit to write sans publisher, sans book deal, sans contract, sans any of the things that I – perhaps naively – imagine help writers to feel that they are not suffering from delusions of talent, I am glad that I am at least an apprentice at the Atelier.



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