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Starting with Place: Understanding Characters and Experiences in Jane Austen’s Final Novel

Critical Survey

The following is the first in a series of posts on Jane Austen. This is a guest post written by Rebecca Posusta, contributor to a special issue of Critical Survey which is devoted to the subject of Jane Austen. Rebecca Posusta is the author of the article titled “Architecture of the Mind and Place in Jane Austen’s Persuasion.”

 

“Architecture of the Mind and Place in Jane Austen’s Persuasion” is in essence a project that explores how the characters of Jane Austen’s final novel understand their physical, social, and psychological place. But, it is also about how the places in which they live tell the story about who they are. It is a project that began to germinate long ago, early in my scholarly career, and is the product of my earliest ideas about myself and how I fit in the world. I grew up in New Orleans, Louisiana; and, it is in New Orleans that I first met Jane Austen and found a connection to the ordinary ideas of humanness with which her novels deal. New Orleans is an old city filled with the physical remnants of a luminous past which fascinate me and ground me in my personal history.

 

I am descended from a long line of French Creoles on my mother’s side who arrived in New Orleans in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century. Growing up, I remember stories my mother and grandmother used to tell of the big house on Esplanade Avenue that was lost after the Civil War, the dashing young man who dabbled in vaudeville and scandalous womanizing, the house on Verbena Street with the mom-and-pop grocery at the back, and the new house on Dodge Avenue with its cinderblock siding, fish pond, and summer house meant for sleeping in on hot summer nights prior to the advent of central air conditioning. Walking through the red-bricked French Quarter with its wrought-iron balconies and cool shaded courtyards, or along the River Road amongst the crumbling façades of the antebellum plantations, I am reminded of a troubled and turbulent past, and have often wondered about my ancestors who once walked the same streets and along the same shelled drives as I have. Who were they? What were they like? Few have told their stories, but the walls and bricks, balconies and flying staircases of the places they lived echo with their lives and experiences.

 

It occurs to me that even fictional characters, particularly those of Austen, are a product of the place in which they live, or at least a product of the place in which their creator lives. This may be why fiction is so appealing to us; we can see our own experiences in the experiences of others. If I start to tell my story, I begin with a place, as I have done here. Austen’s novels often begin with place as well. We meet her characters as they face a disruption in their normal domestic routine and move, change, or accept unpleasant alterations to the place in which they live. At the beginning of Persuasion, Anne Elliot defines herself by her place at Kellynch, but when she moves away from that place and can look back at it with a more critical and detached eye, she learns to define herself and her future. She learns to tell her story by the new places she occupies just like I know myself by both where I have been and where I am headed.

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Rebecca Posusta, M.A., is a Senior Instructor in the English Department at University of Colorado, Colorado Springs.

access Rebecca Posusta’s Article here

Get a free sample issue of critical survey here