Memories of the climactic scene in Persuasion usually focus on Wentworth’s passionate letter:
“I have loved none but you. Unjust I may have been, weak and resentful I have been, but never inconstant. You alone have brought me to Bath. For you alone I think and plan.—. . . You do us justice indeed. You do believe that there is true attachment and constancy among men. Believe it to be most fervent, most undeviating in
The language of Wentworth’s letter, of course, has its genesis in the debate between his friend Captain Harville and Anne Elliot. Discussing constancy in love, Harville argues that men’s feelings are stronger than women’s, “‘capable of bearing most rough usage, and riding out the heaviest weather,’” while Anne claims for women the unenviable “‘privilege’” of “‘loving longest, when existence or when hope is gone.’”
JASNA’s 2018 Annual General Meeting in Kansas City, beautifully organized by Julienne Gehrer, celebrated Persuasion under the banner of “200 Years of Constancy and Hope.” Most discussions of constancy centered on its presence or absence in romantic or erotic love. Another, less-examined aspect of Persuasion’s emphasis on constancy, however, is its application to friendship. Although Wentworth’s self-professed constancy in love can be challenged, his constancy as a friend is unquestionable. He brought Mrs. Harville, her sister, her cousin, and her three children from Portsmouth to Plymouth. He assumed the responsibility of breaking the news of Fanny Harville’s death to Captain Benwick, and then he “‘never left the poor fellow for a week’”—even though he hadn’t been granted leave. As soon as he knows that Harville and Benwick are residing in his part of the country, he rides from Kellynch to Lyme Regis to see them. When Benwick commissions Harville, his bereaved friend, to get his miniature portrait, intended first for Fanny Harville, set for his new fiancée, Wentworth takes on the task. Harville’s value for Wentworth’s constancy in friendship is heartfelt: “‘You may think, Miss Elliot, whether he is dear to us!’”
Some years ago my late and very dear friend Dorothy Shawhan was reading through the letters in Delta State University’s archive sent to and from the Mississippi politician, lawyer, and public servant Lucy Somerville Howorth (1895–1997). Dorothy copied for me a letter to Lucy Somerville, dated January 2, 1920, from the Hotel Oakland, in California, from her lifelong friend Augusta Stacy (later Marshall). “Dear Luce,” the letter begins; “Gus” articulates a desire for a “deep talk” with her friend about books (including the one Lucy has just sent her), politics, and life. She shares news about mutual friends, describes “hotel life,” and pokes fun at her “incorrigible” father. Finally, remarking that she’s alone, “nursing my old enemy la grippe,” she recalls the past:
Remember the Christmas I had it at college and you read “Persuasion” to me all the live long day. West [their dormitory] was so still, and wasn’t it the dearest book? When sweet Annie seated at the concert at Bath felt the Captain looking at her across the whole assembly. It was the prettiest triumph of virtue I know.
I’ve saved the copy of this letter in a folder for years, unsure of what I would do with it. I’ve read it frequently, however, as a testament to Jane Austen’s part in two deep and constant friendships. That constancy resonates powerfully—four years now after Dorothy’s death, ninety-nine years after Gus’s letter to Luce, two hundred years after Persuasion’s publication.
Constancy in friendship has been on my mind for much of this year, in which I’ve had to deal with a diagnosis of colon cancer, surgery, six months of chemotherapy (and a broken right wrist), and then—last month—a heart attack. My family has been helpful and supportive (certainly more so than Anne Elliot’s!), but much of the help and support I’ve been given I owe to the constancy of friends, who have called or written to me, prayed for me, driven me every two weeks to appointments more than two hours away, fed me, and entertained me. Many (though certainly not all) of these friends have been local, but many have also been spread around the world—friends I’ve gained through our mutual love of Jane Austen and our membership in JASNA. Rick Kaplan offered to look at my medical records and shared his expertise and reassurance. Laurie Kaplan offered the combined insights of expertise in medicine and Jane Austen as well as the comforting connection of years of friendship. JASNA’s President (now Past President) Claire Bellanti and President Elect (now President) Liz Philosophos Cooper were constant in their supportive messages and cards. Inger Brodey made the Jane Austen Summer Program, at which I had agreed to speak, an even more than usually comfortable and engaging experience. Marsha Huff most generously flew from Milwaukee to Memphis and braved the heat and humidity of a Mississippi August to take me to a chemotherapy treatment (and to see William Faulkner’s and Eudora Welty’s homes). Many other JASNA friends sent cards and flowers and visited me in the hospital. Kerri Spennicchia was extraordinarily solicitous and caring during the AGM, at a time when (I discovered) my strength had not fully returned.
Those involved in Persuasions and Persuasions On-Line this year have also given more time and effort than usual. We’ve published not one but two special issues of POL this year: POL 38.2, Sanditon: 200 Years, a selection of twenty-one essays from the conference at Trinity College, Cambridge; and POL 38.3, Undisciplined Austen, essays from the Immortal Austen conference and from the Undisciplined Austen research seminar series at Flinders University, Australia. All the members of the Editorial Board of Persuasions (listed on the title page of this issue) have been wonderfully helpful and unstinting in their efforts. Many have responded to my more-often-than-usual requests for faster-than-usual responses: in particular, Laurie Kaplan, Jan Fergus, and Elaine Bander have volunteered swiftly and often. Linda Dennery, JASNA’s outgoing Vice President of Publications, relieved me from almost all of the business aspects of Persuasions and of the editing of the e-book version. Iris Lutz cheerfully dealt with the challenges of our new website. Without Marsha Huff and Carol Moss, we would still be waiting for this issue of Persuasions On-Line to materialize. Marsha not only proofread all essays (and made editing suggestions) but volunteered to check quotations as well. Carol has not only been a very good friend but a tireless, creative, and good-humored force in converting essays from page to screen. I would suggest that such constancy in friendship is rare, but there are too many instances mentioned and not mentioned here to sustain that assertion. But you may think whether you all are dear to me!