Three Generations in Search of Anne Elliot

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In 2014, when I hosted a celebration in honour of Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park, Mary Lu Roffey Redden wrote a guest post on Mary Crawford’s claim that “A clergyman is nothing.” I’m very happy that she agreed to write for this year’s blog series on Persuasion, and that she chose to share a personal story about a pilgrimage she and her mother, her sister, and her niece made to Lyme Regis. Welcome back, Mary Lu! In last week’s guest post, Carol Adams wrote that “On the Cobb, each visitor can appraise the three candidates for the location of Louisa’s fall.” Many visitors, including Mary Lu and her family, focus on the steps called “Granny’s Teeth.”

Mary Lu recently retired as the director of Halifax Humanities 101, a registered charity offering university level, non-credit Humanities education to adults living on low incomes in Halifax, Nova Scotia. She has an MA in Philosophy of Religion from McMaster University and she has worked as both a university and community college instructor. She received a Doctor of Civil Law (honoris causa) from the University of Kings College, Halifax, for her work as an advocate for Humanities education.

The Cobb, Lyme Regis

“I am for Bath. I have always said Bath is incomparable.” With these words from Nick Dear’s screenplay for the 1995 film of Persuasion, three generations of my family decided our itinerary for a ten-day visit to the south of England in 1998. My mother, at age 78, was making her first trip across the Atlantic, as was I, then in my mid-40’s. My older sister and her twenty-two-year-old daughter had both spent considerable time in Europe but neither had done the sort of literary pilgrimage we envisioned.

Persuasion 1995

Four women: one an undergrad in English, one a PhD In English literature, another an MA in Philosophy, and our mom and grandma, probably better read than all of us, but from a family that during the Depression had no money “to waste on educating a girl,” setting out on a journey to discover places dear to Jane Austen. Persuasion was the novel that would dictate part of our itinerary.

I have often wondered just what the appeal of Persuasion is. It is not a sparklingly witty book like Pride and Prejudice, it lacks the intense emotional character of Sense and Sensibility, and it has as its heroine a modest, quiet, overlooked young woman. But thinking back to that trip I have some thoughts. To my mother, whose longing for education was ignored by her six older siblings and her parents, Anne Elliot, “who never seemed considered by the others” (Volume 1, Chapter 2), must have seemed a sympathetic character. To my niece, who was full of excitement that summer, having just met the young man she would marry two years later, the romance of the novel held a strong appeal. For my sister, the English professor, of course any Jane Austen novel is compelling for the beauty of its writing and the depth of its insight. And for me, at the time a stay-at-home mom of children in school, Anne’s quiet life and capacity for reflection paralleled my own rather quiet existence out of the workforce.

Well, yes, we were all “for Bath,” but to be true to the events as they unfold in Persuasion, we headed to Lyme Regis first. Our heads were full of lines from the recent film of Persuasion and while we had each read the novel a few times, as can happen with a film adaptation you like, the dialogue had stuck in our heads supplanting what Jane Austen often left as narrated description rather than direct dialogue.

(In fact, a few years later, my sister was teaching an undergraduate course that included Pride and Prejudice on the syllabus and when she asked her primarily female class to name a scene in the book they particularly loved, a majority of her students described the famous “wet shirt” scene featuring Colin Firth.)

Lyme Regis on a blustering, chilly day in July was both a disappointment and everything we hoped for. The waves were crashing over the top of the Cobb and it was too dangerous for my mother and her middle-aged daughters to try to walk that slippery, wet surface—the very conditions that rendered the high part of the Cobb off limits to the “ladies” in the novel. But my niece could see no reason not to attempt to climb “Granny’s Teeth,” the steps that seemed to be the very ones Louisa Musgrove, also young and impulsive, could not resist. Reciting lines from the film version, I played Captain Wentworth: “No! It is too high!” “Louisa, don’t be so foolish….”

"Granny's Teeth"

We weren’t just play acting. The steps really are very treacherous and the day being wet and windy made them even more so. I wasn’t just Captain Wentworth at that point, but a concerned auntie worried about my laughing, exuberant niece. Fortunately, she did not meet the fate of Louisa Musgrove and we had a great laugh about our silliness when she jumped down, from one of the lower steps.

It was a lovely moment that we all enjoyed thoroughly in spite of the wind and wet. The next day we set out for Bath from our rented cottage near Salisbury and had a lovely lunch in the Pump Room, where our shared excitement at being in the very room Jane herself had frequented was immense. Three years later, my mother began to show signs of the dementia which ravaged the last 12 years of her life. How grateful we are to have made that trip where all four of us pretended ourselves into a favourite Jane Austen novel. Our experience has probably been duplicated countless times by Jane Austen enthusiasts, and I hope that it will continue to be so for generations to come.

Quotations are from the Penguin edition of Persuasion, edited and with an introduction by Gillian Beer (1998) and from Persuasion, screenplay by Nick Dear (1996).

Marine Parade, Lyme Regis

Twenty-second in a series of blog posts celebrating 200 years of Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey and Persuasion. To read more about all the posts in the series, visit “Youth and Experience.” Coming soon: guest posts by Maggie Arnold, Hazel Jones, and Maggie Lane.

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